Category Archives: Early years

Why Fewer Girls Play Chess and What to Do about it

Sandy Ruxton is an Independent Consultant and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Durham. He is undertaking research on gender norms for the UK Government Equalities Office, together with Nicole Westmarland and Stephen Burrell, which will be published in 2020. At the conference he presented a survey on what tutors say about girls in the chess classroom which he conducted on behalf of Chess in Schools and Communities. The following article reflects his personal views.

Much discussion at the 2019 London Chess Conference understandably focussed on how to present chess as an attractive game for girls, and promising practices in engaging and sustaining their participation at all levels. But less attention was given to how wider gender norms influence the attitudes and behaviour of girls and boys from a very young age, and how they can undermine or support involvement in chess.

It is still common in the chess world to hear it said that girls’ brains are just not hardwired for chess and that their absence is merely a reflection of this biological fact. But in academic circles the notion that the differences between girls and boys in terms of skills and capacities are predetermined and fixed is increasingly discredited[4]. Modern neuroscience shows that there is very little difference between male and female brains. Indeed, the brain is very ‘plastic’, and the wider environment has a huge influence on any gendered differences [5].

Translated to the field of chess, this suggests that it is not that girls can’t play chess, rather that there are social and cultural influences that mean that they don’t. For example, parents often create a gendered world for young children by providing different play environments, toys, and clothing for boys and girls[6]. They also tend to encourage girls to engage in ‘feminine’ play and boys to engage in ‘masculine’ play[7]. So if parents see chess as a boy-dominated activity, they are unlikely to inspire their daughters to get involved.

School and nursery practitioners report that they often unknowingly treat children differently based on gender[8]. Boys are often paid more attention than girls in class, even when there are fewer of them[9]. Practitioners often reward ‘gender appropriate behaviour’ and use gendered language to refer to boys and girls in stereotypical ways. A combination of factors such as these can influence children’s play preferences, and hence their attraction to chess. This may be reinforced by the preponderance of male chess tutors, for whom gender issues may remain largely invisible as they are part of the dominant norm.

Children and young people are not just passive sponges of gender norms, but actively perform and learn gender through social interaction with their peers. They often police one another too, ridiculing those who behave in ways that do not conform to certain gender norms and rewarding gender-typical behaviour from their peers[10]. In practice, this can lead boys (and sometimes other girls) to undermine and/or dismiss girls’ participation in chess.

The weight of these influences can seem overwhelming. So what can be done? In some ways, it is impossible to divorce measures to address gender norms that affect girls’ participation in chess, from those that seek to raise the position and status of girls more widely. Within primary schools and other early years settings, teachers and tutors need to check their own unconscious biases and challenge stereotyping, and gender training has a role to play here as part of a whole-school approach. In the same way that gendered language can reinforce gender bias, it is essential to audit the use of language and imagery in leaflets, websites, and information for parents. Another important step is to ensure that staff and tutors feel able to engage and talk with children about not excluding themselves or others from certain types of play, such as chess. It is also vital to listen to and discuss girls’ (and boys’) own perspectives on what they would like to change so that they can all enjoy all aspects of school life, including chess. Finally, it is crucial to engage with parents and carers to help them explore and challenge gender stereotypes too, and thereby open up opportunities for their children that they might not have otherwise considered.

Footnotes:

[1] The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life. In 2019, Fawcett launched an expert ‘Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’ to build a new consensus on the impact gender stereotypes have and how they can be ended.

[2] Martin, C., & Ruble, D. (2004) ‘Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development,’ Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2)

[3] Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian, (2017) ‘Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests’, Science 355

[4] Fine, C. (2011) Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences, London: Icon Books

[5] Rippon, G. (2019) The Gendered Brain, Bodley Head: London

[6] Etaugh, C. & Liss, M.B (1992). ‘Home, school, and playroom: training grounds for adult gender roles,’ Sex Roles, 26

[7] Etaugh & Liss, ibid.

[8] The National Unions of Teachers (2013) Stereotypes stop you doing stuff, challenging stereotypes through Primary education, https://www.teachers.org.uk/files/stereotypes-stop.pdf

[9] Chick, K., Heilman-Houser, R., & Hunter, M. (2002) ‘The impact of childcare on gender role development and gender stereotypes,’ Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(3)

[10] Martin, C. L., Kornienko, O., Schaefer, D. R., Hanish, L. D., Fabes, R. A., & Goble, P. (2013) ‘The role of sex of peers and gender-typed activities in young children’s peer affiliative networks: A longitudinal analysis of selection and influence,’ Child Development, 84

A journey for a fairy tale

Tatyana Ogneva

When I started teaching chess to primary school children after all the basic lessons, I had to face the problem of children’s fatigue. Tired children and chess are incompatible. Taking into account that chess lessons are conducted in the afternoon, some children tend to sleep. Other children are too tired to keep their temper in line, and they are not able to sit quietly at the table. In both cases, all these conditions hinder chess teaching since children’s attention is distracted. 

I started searching for a resource that would open up a source of energy for children. Finally, I found it. It turned out to be children’s imagination. I animated chess pieces and pawns, endowing them with aspirations and goals that children were able to understand. In this chess kingdom, pawns were children, and chess pieces were adults taking care of these children. Once upon a time, the pawns-children came up with a cunning plan, which resulted in a chain of events. When I told these stories to pupils, I noticed that their fatigue disappeared without a trace. Their faces brightened up, there was interest in their eyes and their only desire was to get to chess as soon as possible and play these stories themselves. They turned into characters of these chess stories and were completely immersed in the game activity. I was very surprised by the fact that children who had just got to know the rules of moves played the game very reasonably. It was obvious that they did it mindfully, with an awareness of the purpose that they understood through the image that lived in their imagination. However, the surprises did not end there. In addition to playing out these stories, pupils solved chess problems presented in the form of a hunter’s struggle with a monster trying to take possession of a treasure chest. The biggest challenge for me was to make children walk and not run when they went to the classroom. The children, burning with impatience, often broke into a run.

Since then, working with children’s imagination has become my main method for teaching chess to beginners.

Once, I saw on the FIDE website an announcement about a chess conference in London dedicated to chess and mathematics. The organizers of the conference arranged a competition for the best chess mini-game. I sent my game called “chess football” and a description of the exercise about the hunter and the monster to take part in this competition. John Foley sent me a letter with his comments about “the hunter and the monster”. The point was that to fight for treasures is very mercantile and is beneath a real hero. One must save the princess; this is the mission the hunter must fulfill. John Foley, the organizer of the competition, invited me to the conference. As a result, my game “chess football” won the competition. I was happy to personally attend this event and receive congratulations from the audience.

Football Chess

John Foley’s remarks haunted my mind. I started thinking about the princess. At first I was confused: “Where did she come from and how did she find herself in the monster’s cave?” I thought. The more I thought about the princess, the more I began to imagine the circumstances leading up to this sad event.

Eventually, she was rescued and it ended well. As a result of these reflections, the fairy tale “The Adventures of Alex in the Chess Kingdom” was born. The idea of the fairy tale unfolded in front of me in its entirety, but there was one problem. I did not know how to start it. The main character’s motivation to learn the chess game was not clear for me. “Why will he do it? What will be the driving force behind his intention?” I asked myself and could not find the answer.

I received the answer to this question when I took part in a Skype conference organized by the Nizhnevartovsk Methodological Center where I presented a report about my trip to London. Vladimir Poley from Belarus, who now works in Sweden, also was among the speakers. He spoke about the annual school championship of classes, where everyone’s participation is valuable, as it can have a decisive influence in the fight for the title of the champion of school teams. This information helped me to understand what could be the driving force for the hero of my fairy tale to learn chess. He did not want to let his classmates down, because they prepared for this competition. So he decided to learn to play chess.

The Prince’s Adventures

Last year I submitted this fairy tale to the competition among chess teachers of Russia and became one of the winners. This year I published a textbook on teaching chess to children, which included this fairy tale. To date, I have written four educational chess fairy tales with beautiful illustrations by the talented artist Tatyana Bogacheva. I am very grateful to John Foley for the incentive that I received when I took part in the conference in London.

Which Workshops for You?

During the parallel sessions of the conference you will have a choice where to go to. Here are brief summaries of the workshops in chronological order.

Saturday afternoon

Chess in Education Strategy This two-part workshop picks up key issues from the first plenary session and addresses how strategic processes can be organised and communicated within organisations and towards stakeholders. (15-16 and 16.30-18)

Chess in Communities Chess projects that are serving social purposes in its immediate surroundings require a different outlook than competitive chess. Three project leaders share their challenges and provide inspiration. (15-16)

Chess in Prisons Chess has been a popular pasttime of prisoners for a long time. Recently it has been picked up as an intervention to educate inmates and young at-risk delinquents. Prison chess leaders come together to exchange experience and develop a joint research project. (16.30-18)

Sunday morning

Large Scale School Chess Events They are a corner stone of promoting and marketing school chess. Presentations on the UK Chess Challenge, Belaya Ladya, Linkes Alsterufer gegen rechtes Alsterufer, Schack4an and the K12 (Super)Nationals will elaborate what makes each of theses events special, and maybe why none has a conference attached to it yet. (9.30-11)

Business Development How can you put your school chess project or teaching business on firmer ground and make it more efficient? Neil Dietsch, who after a long corporate career is running school chess in Alabama, will conduct this hands-on workshop (9.30-11)

Book Presentation: The Learning Spiral Kevin Cripe, a retired teacher who is now running a chess project for disadvantaged kids in Panama, will present and discuss his new book on chess didactics. (10-11)

Teaching Coding and Computer Skills through Chess Strategy games, and chess in particular, provide a great pathway to introduce young students to coding and teach them other computer skills. Boris Raguet, a French teacher and teacher trainer, shows how this can be accomplished. He will be introduced by David Kramaley. (10-11)

Sunday afternoon

Early Years Chess Starting out on chess with preschoolers or first graders comes with special challenges but also with opportunities to use chess to promote basic numeracy, literacy and psycho motor skills. (13.45-15.15)

Making School Chess Research More Relevant Most studies of school chess have concentrated on cognitive benefits and simple comparisons with control groups of children that didn´t learn chess. While their results may be useful for marketing, different research questions and methods are required to improve the quality and efficacy of school chess. (13.45-15.15)

Promoting Social Skills through Chess Initially often targeted at mathematic and logic skills, those who teach chess in schools often find that social skills are promoted equally or even priorily. (13.45-15.15)

Workshops provide ample opportunity to answer questions, discuss and start cooperating

Debating Scholastic Chess

Scholastic Chess is the core theme of the 2017 conference and also of the six debates that we are running on Saturday afternoon 15.30-16.30. The debating format is called World Café and has been developed to share knowledge and to encourage action. Each debate is hosted by an expert who has proposed a debating question. The host keeps the discussion going and engages the participants to contribute. All six debates go on at the same time in the same big room. After thirty minutes everyone but the host will be invited to move on to a different debate. Originally we intended to have everyone switch after twenty minutes, but this may have been too hectic.

Three topics are following up on the crucial distinction between education oriented and competition oriented school chess: The Dutch chess psychologist, coach and author Karel van Delft asks what Separates Scholastic and Competitive Chess? The question put up by the London Chess Conference Programme Director Stefan Löffler is how should the Scholastic Chess Movement Organise Itself? Yonne Tangelder, a school chess coordinator at the Norwegian Chess Federation, wants to know, what is the best age for scholastic chess?

Tal Granite, chess coach and founding director of the Chess Institute of Canada, picks up experiences and insights on the Social Benefits of Scholastic Chess to supplement his lecture on the following day about Chess and the Hidden Curriculum. How can Chess Promote Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom? is the topic of Sabine Vollstädt-Klein, an addiction scientist at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim and the University of Heidelberg. Jesper Hall, the Swedish chairman of the European Chess Union´s Education Commission, argues for a code of conduct in scholastic chess and in junior chess and what it may entail.

Pick the two debates that interest you most!