With so many wonderful brain benefits of playing chess, many parents and teachers are asking what's the best way to teach chess to kids. After all, learning how to play chess can seem complicated and overwhelming to even adults. How can you teach a child something complex like chess?
We've spent a lot of time asking ourselves that question, researching the options, and brainstorming fun ideas. Here we offer the best tips we've uncovered for teaching children how to play the wonderful game of chess.
MAKE IT FUN
We all know that children are much more likely to engage in something if they enjoy it! A child's desire to play and have fun is healthy, and you can use their love of fun as a way to encourage them to play chess more often. Below are some tips on how to make learning & playing chess fun for children of all ages.
Don't focus on the rules
Sometimes we forget that the purpose of having rules in a game is actually to make the game fun. Rules are meant to clarify what you can and can't do in order to give the game the right level of challenge, keep it interesting, and to maintain a sense of fairness among the players. Rules should make the game enjoyable.
But when a child is first learning chess, certain chess rules might make chess seem too challenging, complicated, or restrictive. If a rule is getting in the way of having fun, then simply throw that rule out until later when it makes sense to add it back in.
For example, if a child who is learning wants to make all the pieces move like pawns, take back a move they made, or switch sides halfway through the game...why not let them try it? The point is to keep them engaged as they learn by keeping things fun. If certain rules are keeping that from happening in the moment, then put those rules aside until later.
Enjoy the pieces and the board
When my youngest son sees a chess set, he often picks up the pieces and starts playing with them like action figures in an epic battle. The board becomes the battlefield and I hear him saying things like "attack!" or "defend the king!" with an excited voice. He grabs a couple pieces and has them fight in midair before one or both fall down injured in battle.
By doing this, he's playing chess. Sure, there's complete disregard for the rules and perhaps a little more violence than I prefer to see him engaging in, but it's also his natural and wonderful way of enjoying the chess board and pieces.
Chess sets are wonderful to look at and play with. The board is beautiful with its contrasting squares and clean, organized design. The variety of pieces each look fascinating and inspire imagination. Part of enjoying chess is appreciating the board and pieces. For children this might mean playing with them like action figures or setting them out on their dresser to look at.
TIP: When buying a chess set for children, choose a durable set with a look they'll enjoy. We prefer wooden chess sets because they're natural, beautiful to look at, and can withstand a lot of wear & tear from children.
Play at their level
This is pretty intuitive for most parents, but it's worth a reminder on why it's an important part of teaching children chess. Playing at a "child's level" is simply a way to meet them where they are developmentally so they can learn more effectively. This means sometimes going easy on them, giving them ideas on what might or might not be a good move, and allowing the child to experience success by capturing pieces and winning some games.
This doesn't necessarily mean always letting them win. That would mean playing below their level. After all, making mistakes is a wonderful way to learn. Just remember that when you're first learning something, it's helpful to experience some early "wins" to give you the confidence that this is something you can learn to do well.
MAKE IT SIMPLE
The most common reason parents say they don't teach their children how to play chess is that the game is so complicated. Many adults don't know how to play themselves, and even if they do, the idea of teaching chess to a child seems daunting. But it doesn't have to be difficult or complex. Keeping things simple is one of the best ways to teach children to play and enjoy chess.
Start with simplified versions of chess rules
Don't try to learn all the rules at once. It's much more fun (and less daunting!) to start by playing a game with simplified chess rules. Once you become comfortable with the simplified rules, you can gradually add in other rules until you're eventually playing with all the rules of standard chess. ("Standard Chess" is what we call the game of chess when you use all of the rules as determined by the World Chess Federation, which is also known as FIDE.)
Use visual aids as reminders so memorization isn't necessary
The toughest part of learning chess for many beginners is remembering how each piece moves. A great (and easy) way to solve this problem is to keep a reference sheet handy to remind you how each piece moves. You can buy a chess set that comes with visual references like that, or you can make your own. If you make your own, remember to use images when possible since a visual representation of how pieces move is easier to understand than words alone.
Use a beginner chess set like Fun Family Chess
Some chess sets are made with learning chess in mind! Fun Family Chess is a chess set that was designed to make learning chess fun and easy for both kids and adults. It includes a full wooden chess set, as well as instructions for a simplified version of chess and some reference cards so memorization isn't required. It also includes a "Chess Cube" (dice with chess symbols on it) that helps by simplifying your movement choices while learning and by adding a fun element of chance to the game. If this sounds good to you, you can buy Fun Family Chess here or on Amazon.
LET THE CHILD SET THE PACE
When learning chess, a child will experience the most long-term benefits if they're able to learn at a pace that fits their age, learning style, and interest level. This means observing the child for cues on what pace works best for them, as well as asking them directly if they want to learn more or simply play based on the rules they already know.
There's no need to rush the learning process
It's wonderful when we learn to stop rushing things that need time to grow. That is especially true when it comes to children. The primary purpose of education is to foster a love of learning. So relax, don't rush, and give them time to absorb each chess rule or concept before moving to the next one. Remember, a child's brain will benefit from playing chess even when playing with simplified rules.
Give them opportunities to play chess often
You might find that your child wants to play chess more often than you or their siblings will want to play. If so, that's great! You can encourage their interest in chess by giving them lots of opportunities to play with others. Two great ideas for this are:
- ChessKid.com - This is a FANTASTIC place for kids to play chess with other kids online. It's a completely kid-safe environment that we highly recommend. Their standard membership is free, but if you sign-up using this link you'll also get two months of their premium "gold" membership for free!
- Join a local kids chess club - If you are in the US, the US Chess Federation has a list of chess clubs on their website. Not all chess clubs are listed on that site, however, and many of them are for adult chess players. A separate list US scholastic chess clubs can be found here. You could also do an internet search for "kids chess club in [enter your city name]" or start your own chess club if that sounds fun!
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ONLINE RESOURCES
There are some great online resources for teaching children how to play chess. Here are three we recommend:
- ChessKid.com Videos and Puzzles - In addition to providing kids with a fun and safe place to play chess online, ChessKid also gives you access to free lesson videos and chess puzzles to practice your skills. Don't forget to sign up for chesskid.com using this link so you'll also get 2 months of free Gold Membership! (Gold Membership gives you unlimited access to all of ChessKid's great resources!)
- Kids Academy Videos on Youtube - The Kids Academy Youtube Channel has some great videos for kids that teaches about the history of chess, rules of the game, and basic strategies. Simply search for the word "chess" in their youtube channel (not in the main Youtube search bar, but in the search bar for their channel) to find dozens of videos about chess.
- Fun Family Chess Videos - If you own the Fun Family Chess set, you'll love the videos they made for the game because they make learning how to set up simple and fun. Just remember that those videos are specifically for Fun Family Chess, so if you don't have the reference cards and chess cube that come with the game, you might want to use other videos instead.
LET US KNOW HOW WE CAN HELP
Our mission at Brain Blox is to empower the parents, teachers, and countless others working hard to help children flourish. So if you're reading this article, that means you! If there's anything we can do to help you teach children how to play chess, please let us know by contacting us. We'd love to hear from you.