NY Times: Chess Helps Kids Improve Math Skills
Danbury second-graders play chess to sharpen math skills
By Eileen FitzGerald STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated:10/23/2007 04:20:51 AM EDT
Seven-year-old Noelia Espinal captured a knight and Rafaela Padilha had a rook. They both knew who was ahead. The knight was worth more points than the rook.
The girls were deep in a chess game during their Monday math lesson at South Street School in Danbury.
"It's fun," Noelia said as she prepared to take a pawn from the chess mat. "Because you get to win. You try to get the king."
Their teacher, Craig Fay, has taught his students chess for the past three years and played the game with them once a week after lunch.
This year, the school district is piloting a program in Fay's class with guest instructor James Santorelli, who teaches math using the game of chess once a week. His curriculum reinforces basic math skills like counting, adding and subtracting but expands to such areas as estimating movements, graphing and recording game moves.
Santorelli co-wrote the course now used in two New York school districts to build critical thinking and spatial skills.
On Monday morning, he spent part of the hour asking students math questions based on chess moves that required adding and subtracting and evaluating moves. Once the students joined their partners in chess games, the class of second-graders was pretty quiet.
"Remember the center of the board is like the top of a mountain," Santorelli told the students, reminding them to move their pieces to the middle of the board. "If I'm high up on the mountain, don't I have a better view than from down in the valley?"
At one point, Santorelli gathered the class around one board to hear options for creating checkmate.
He stopped to ask Jennifer Mendonca, 7, and Yosania Almonte, 7, which one of them was winning. They had to calculate. A pawn plus a knight equaled 13, minus a pawn and a rook, which was 9 points. That determined that Jennifer was ahead.
"It's very fun," Jennifer said. "I get to prove my knowledge."
"It's fun capturing people," she added.
Fay said he's seen how chess can help students who struggle in math or socially.
"It really makes girls feel good about math, and boys like it because it's competitive," he said. "Last year I had a couple of girls who really struggled in math and after learning to play chess they really did better and raised their hands much more in class."
Santorelli, who is co-founder and executive director of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation and president of Academic Chess, a nonprofit group based in Danbury, said research supports the value of chess, which is part of the coursework at thousands of schools in nearly 30 countries around the world.
Santorelli teaches chess starting in preschool and said if a child can take direction, he can learn chess. "In my opinion, this (second-grade) is the grade level that is the best time to capitalize on teaching visual-spatial skills and critical-thinking skills."
Typically, spatial ability is developed in third and fourth grade, but when it's offered in second grade the students learn decision-making skills and a systematic way of thinking they can use in other subjects, he said.
"The child has to first draw upon prior knowledge, even if it's just knowing the moves of the chess pieces. Once they have a given position in front of them, they have to come to a decision, then take action," he said.
"The action has consequences, once you make a move. With the very next move, the whole process starts over."
Researchers found that children who play chess -- even at a beginning level -- score higher on standardized reading and math tests, according to Tim Redman, a professor of literary studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and director of the university's chess program.
He said experts are not entirely certain why that happens, but they suspect the cognitive processes used in chess are similar to those employed in other learning in the classroom.
One study proved a significant correlation between the ability to play chess well, and spatial, numerical, administrative-directional, and paperwork abilities. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell wrote in his book "Your Child's Intellect" that some knowledge of chess is a way to develop a preschooler's intellect and academic readiness.
At South Street School on Monday morning, the research played out simply with Axel Ortiz, 7, and John Lopez, 8. As they played their match, they said the game helps them learn math skills.
"We play nicely,'' Lopez said. "We have lots of fun playing chess."
Contact Eileen FitzGerald
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