When you’re a kid, you have very little power. Grown ups make all of the decisions for you, from what you wear, to what you eat, to when you wake up and when you go to sleep. What does a kid have control over?
Give your students the gift of power.
Sports and games are tools and times for kids to experience power. After teaching a child how to play a game, you let them make their own decisions. They try out different tactics. Sometimes they fail, and it’s your job to make sure that is okay. We work at providing nurturing spaces to practice wielding power. Both successes and failures will help children adapt behaviors and thinking.
During a foot race, maybe a child will sprint the first few meters, only to find out that they ought to have saved a little energy for the end. Another will conserve energy too successfully, allowing all of her opponents to pass and get so far ahead that she will never catch up. A basketball star will learn that his team isn’t going to be as pleased with him taking all of the praise, even if he did score the winning basket. It’s a good idea to share the wealth when it comes to glory.
There are many life lessons that can be learned and experienced through playing games. One of my favorite games for empowering kids is chess. This is NOT because I am good at it. I’m not. In fact, it is because my students CAN and do beat me at chess, that I have witnessed, first hand the empowerment of the game.
I teach third grade, which means that my students have not quite developed abstract thinking yet. Chess presents concrete cause and effect relationships, combined with complicated but recognizable patterns that help players predict the future.
The game involves capturing your opponent’s pieces and ultimately cornering their king. The various pieces have different ways of moving and capturing. The fact that there are so many rules for moving pieces may seem daunting to a novice, but I find that they provide power. Knowledge of how chess works unlocks the mystery of the game for kids. Have you ever seen the gleam on the face of a child who tells an impressed adult, “I know how to play chess”? You might think that they could perform CPR! And, if you run across a student who has checkmated an adult, you’d swear they could fly or jump over entire skyscrapers in a single bound at the very least.
Immediately after teaching my students how all of the pieces work, I jump right to the very end of the game; checkmate. I show my students how it works and what it looks like. Checkmate happens when you are attacking your opponent’s king, and there isn’t any way for him to get out of being attacked. He is trapped. You possess all of the power of the board.
Once you understand what checkmate is, you work toward making it happen. This usually involves capturing your opponent’s defensive pieces. A player will try to trick an opponent into giving up “material,” by creating scenarios that cannot be escaped or avoided. It takes planning ahead to forge tactics like forks, pins, and skewers; chess terms depicting powerful strategies. Likewise, it requires noticing patterns to avoid these pitfalls.
When a child wins a game, he or she will feel good about him- or her-self. So much more, if the game is complex and difficult. Combine that with the idea of defeating an adult or someone who traditionally signifies power over them (babysitter or older sibling), and the effects are exponential.
I have seen this first hand. In order to squeeze more chess into the school day, I sometimes use a chess clock. This is called speed chess. You still try to capture pieces and ultimately checkmate your opponent, but added to the game is “running out of time.” Whoever has their time disappear first loses.
Well, I was playing a wily 3rd grader earlier this year, and he placed me in enough troubling situations that I needed to use more time thinking about getting out of traps than I was allotted. Suffice to say, my clock ran out. As time ticked down to seconds, my opponent’s friends gathered around our game. They couldn’t believe his success. And, when my clock turned red (time’s gone), he jumped up and screamed, “I beat Mr. Weimann!” followed by running around the room, further announcing to classmates, all of whom definitely already heard the news, that he had defeated the giant.
I’ll be completely transparent and honest with you and myself: It felt humiliating. I was super tempted to sit everyone down and explain the handicap of having to make complicated decisions in a short period of time and how I never would have lost, had we NOT been using a chess clock.
Somehow, I was able to swallow that shame. Now, I am proud to say that some of my students have grown in their chess playing skills so much that they can beat me, even without using a chess clock. They practically beg to play me in hopes that they will overpower me. Crowds of kids gather around our games. I’ve had to make up rules like, “No helping one another.” I can’t win against the whole class! They LOVE it.
Would I like to be less beatable at chess? Sure, but having a flicker of hope that they could defeat the teacher has inspired my class to become chess enthusiasts beyond all previous groups.
I’ll end with this story and lesson. I wanted to teach my daughter how to play chess. She learned how the pieces worked, and she grew to understand the concept of checkmate. When she found no success in winning a game against me, she lost interest. I came up with an idea borrowed from golf; I gave myself handicaps. The first one was playing without a queen. I play just as seriously as I normally would, but an end game of my two rooks versus my daughter’s queen and rook puts her and I on a more even playing field. It equalizes the power-dynamic.
Another trick I tried was giving my daughter way more time than myself on the chess clock. She now tries to put me into troubling scenarios to run down my time.
Perhaps you may be concerned about losing power or respect when a child beats you at chess. It is true that they will no longer think you invincible on the board. Clearly, you can be beat. They just did exactly that! But, this does not change any other part of your relationship. If anything, it makes you appear more human.
I have always been keen to point out mistakes I’ve made in the middle of lessons, and I constantly point out that I struggle spelling certain words. Does this make me a less powerful teacher? It’s all about goals. What do you want to be perceived as? Are you hoping to be viewed as lord over them? Do you want to be seen as one who has all of the answers? My goal is to be my students’ guide. I am bringing them from the beginning of third grade to the beginning of fourth grade. Some students will have growth spurts while others will plug along. There are times and situations where it is most important for a student to simply “get healthy” emotionally, mentally, or intellectually, before growing. I will guide them through this experience.
Also, I will do my best to help them realize the power within them. I will work at showing them their power. I use chess to empower my students. What do you use?