How to Play Chess for Kids: 3 Fun Activities for Teaching Children the Game

The idea of teaching the game of chess to kids can be a little intimidating. Chess can be complicated. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to keep it simple and fun. Check out these three fun activities on how to play chess for kids that will help them learn this awesome game.


How to Play Chess for Kids: What Not to Do

When some people think of Chess, they think complicated. In some ways they are right. Chess is a game full of possibilities and strategies. When trying to teach chess to kids, the last thing you want to do is to start droning on like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Don’t try to start explaining the rules or the strategy of the game. At this point, it’s all too abstract. Also skip strategy, tips or anything like that. In fact, you don’t need to even mention what the ultimate goal of the game.

At this point, keep it simple. How do you do that? Read on.


Keeping Chess Simple for Kids to Get Started

Less is more when it comes to teaching children how to play chess. We are going to start simple and keep it fun.

Kids learn by doing. They also learn best when they are engaged. So the key is to give them actionable and engaging activities that will teach them chess in the process.

These steps are meant to be done at your own pace. It will depend on the age of your children and their level of interest in the game.

You don’t need to go through all the steps in one afternoon. In fact, you might spend several sessions with your children on a particular step.

With that in mind, let’s get to the fun stuff.

Step 1: The Chess Board Dump: Exploring the Pieces

The first step doesn’t involve any rules at all. Take all the chess pieces and dump them onto the table. Let your kids check out all the pieces. Let them play with them, explore and ask questions.

Does your kid want to pick up the knight and make horsey noises? Heck yeah, let him go.

At this point, you can tell them the name of the piece, but don’t bother going into much detail on what the piece does.

Step 2: Sorting the Chess Pieces

Once your kids have had a chance to play with the pieces, start sorting out the pieces. First sort by color, then sort by piece.

This is also a good time to keep answering questions about the pieces. It also reinforces the order of the game. Your kids will see that there a many of some pieces and fewer than others.

You are going to be setting up a minigame using just the pawns, so you can tell your kids to pick a color and collect all the pawns together.

Step 3: Put Just the Pawns on the Board

Next you are going to setup for the Pawn Parade minigame. Set up the pawns like you would in a normal game, just don’t use any other pieces.

Explain to your kids that goal of the game is to see who can get the most pieces to the other side of the board. Here’s a summary of the rules:


The Pawn Parade: Chess Mini-Game #1

  • Play a game with only the pawns on the board.
  • The goal is to get your pawns to the other side of the board.
  • The player with the most pawns on the other side wins.
  • The pawns can move one or two spaces forward for their first move.
  • They can only move one space at a time for subsequent moves unless they’re capturing an opponent’s pawn.
  • Each pawn can move one space diagonally forward to capture another.
  • If there is a stand-off where a pawn from each side blocks the other, then neither moves forward.

You can play this game as many times as it is fun and until your children have the concept of pawn movement down.

If you’re looking for more detail, check out Kathy Price and Andre E. Zupans program Teaching Chess the Easy and Fun Way with Mini-Games through the University Interscholastic League (UIL) Texas. It’s a great resource.


Horse Race: Chess Mini-Game #2

Kids are always drawn to the Knight. At this point they are probably chomping at the bit (ha?) to play with the pieces. This chess minigame is perfect for that. Once your kids are ready to move on to something else, you can teach them the “Horse Race.”

First, explain and show your kids how the knight moves in an L pattern. Use the board with just the knight. Then let them practice moving the knight on an empty board.

Second, set up the board like you did for “Pawn Parade.” This time add the four Knights in their correct spot. Explain that the Knights start every game from this spot.

Third, explain that Knights are allowed to jump over other pieces, just like horses jump.

Finally, explain that the goal of the game will be for each player to get their Knights to the other end of the board. Once they figure this out, you can add other variations.


Last Person Standing: Chess Mini-Game #3

The next Chess minigame is going to teach some more piece movement. It’s important that they understand how the pawns moved in “Pawn Parade” before moving on.

This game is not hard, but it is a step up from the “Pawn Parade.” For this game, you are going to be using the Rook, Knight, and Bishop.

First you need to explain the movement of the Rook and the Bishop. Then set up the board in their appropriate spots. The winner is the person with the last piece on the board.

Here is a summary of the mini-game:

  • This game is played with each side using both rooks, knights, and bishops. Additionally, each side has two pawns: one on each end of the pawn row.
  • The purpose of this activity is to practice moving and capturing.
  • The person with the last piece on the board wins.

Learning the Rules of Chess by Playing the Mini-Games

By now, if you have played all three mini-games, the only pieces left are the king and the queen. You are now ready to start putting all the parts together for a full game of Chess.

There are books and books written on strategy, but at this point, you have all the basic rules in place without droning on and on.

If you’re looking for some ideas on teaching the king and queen, check out Teaching Chess the Easy and Fun Way with Mini-Games through the University Interscholastic League (UIL) Texas. It’s a great resource.


Other Great Resources on How to Play Chess for Kids

U.S. Chess Center based in Washington, D.C. offers helpful links to resources available and tournaments in the D.C. area, including Maryland and Virginia. They also provide a series of twelve lesson plans designed to teach the beginning player. U.S. Chess states on the opening page of the plans that it is not necessary to be an advanced player yourself to teach chess.

The plans are especially helpful if you are not an advanced player. For instance, Lesson 7: Pawn Promotion and the Rule of Stalemate begins with a board set up with one side in check. You begin by asking the student which side is in check. Once that is determined, let them know that there are 14 ways out of check on this particular placement, and the student needs to find each possibility.

The second part of this lesson involves pawn promotion. The board is set up with four pieces and the pawn’s next move is a promotion to another piece. The outcome here is checkmate within a few moves.

The final portion of Lesson 7 is stalemate. After a discussion regarding the difference between checkmate and stalemate, the board is set up similarly to the one for checkmate. The point here, however, is to illustrate that when there are no longer any legal moves available, the game ends in a tie.

While U.S. Chess Center lessons are created in a more academic format than Mini-Games, they are clearly formatted for an instructor to follow. The objective, execution, and outcome are succinctly identified. With some practice prior to teaching, the instructor should be capable of transferring the key points successfully.


The Benefits of Teaching Children to Play Chess

Teaching children to play chess has advantages that extend beyond the immediacy of keeping them engaged, quiet, and off the electronics. In fact, according to Beth Weinhouse in her article published in Parents Magazine, “The Brainy Benefits of Chess,” among its documented benefits are improved academic scores by as much as 10%.

In her article, Weinhouse cites two seemingly disparate New York City schools, one private and the other public inner-city, that begin teaching chess in kindergarten with similar positive outcomes.

There is a slight discrepancy over the age children should be in order to teach them chess. The general window is between three and seven years old. The overwhelming consensus, however, is that chess should be something the child wants to learn.

One of the benefits of learning to play chess is that it’s a compact and inexpensive way to keep yourself and your child occupied. All you need is a compact set and basic knowledge of the game. The next time you’re on a long flight, break out a chess board.

In another example of the benefits of chess, Weinhouse shares her own experience of traveling with her five-year-old son. A seven-hour flight looming ahead, and a squirmy child in tow is not an invent picture. Miraculously, another passenger with a portable set was offering a match with any of the passengers.

She asked her son if he wanted to play. He eagerly jumped at the chance and returned only when they were ready to land. The retired high-school teacher and chess coach had kept that child captivated with the game of chess for nearly the entire flight.

It is a rare activity in which young children and the elderly can play together with equal mental stimulation. Chess helps to build bonds through shared interest. A moment of quiet concentration creates a sense of purpose.


Teaching Children Chess Should Be Fun

Huub van der Logt, a Dutch chess teacher, takes that thought a step further and insists that “every lesson should celebrate the fun of chess.” Van der Logt continues, “Chess is above all a way to teach children things that have nothing to do with chess as a game or as a sport.” Aspects he’s seen improve with children he’s taught over the years are “concentration, self-confidence, understanding cause and effect, analytical skills, and decisiveness.”

The Hamilton Chess Club reiterates the positive effects of learning chess. The Club is an ancillary group that’s part of the Hamilton Boys High School based in New Zealand. They expand the positive aspects of chess and concentration as they relate to specific subject areas. One key element related to chess noted on their website is learning that there are consequences for your actions. That’s a critical lesson to teach young people.

In fact, Weinhouse relates a story of a Brownsville, TX elementary school principal’s concern about boys who were being let off too early and were beginning to get into mischief. She discovered them one day quietly absorbed in playing chess in a fifth-grade teacher’s classroom. She asked the teacher to start a before-school chess club. It grew into a kindergarten through sixth-grade success at this low-income school that went on to win state championships.

The Hamilton Chess Club adds that chess is fun because no two games are ever the same. Every game involves different moves. Unlike other board games that have predictable outcomes, chess is a game of strategy that is played and won differently each time.


Video Lessons to Teach Kids the Game of Chess

Want to share a video with your child on learning Chess? There are a lot out there, the trick is finding a good one. ChessKid puts out a multi part series. It teaches the rudimentary aspects of the game and continues into more complicated moves that each piece can make. The animation, including the narrator’s voice, and graphics are thoughtfully paced, informative at a child-specific level, and entertaining.

It may help to use a combination of aids to teach children the game of chess. Perhaps starting with an introductory video, such as ChessKid Lessons geared specifically toward the topic you want to address during each lesson.


What About Winning and Losing and the Rules of the Game?

It’s pretty clear that in Chess, the goal is to win. There are definite rules of etiquette and sportsmanship in the pursuit of that accomplishment. But, should young children be forced to adhere to the same strictures as older children or even adults?

There are different perspectives on this point. Some believe that the rules of the game should be instituted from the beginning. Others insist it’s a process that develops as the child does.

One of the suggestions offered by Price and Zupons offer is using large rubber floor mat pieces that connect together in two different colors to set up a life-size chess board. The children can then use their bodies as the chess pieces to move as instructed to the different squares.

Another way to make chess more appealing to young children is to provide variations on the standard pieces. Some suggestions here could be a set of animated characters the child enjoys. Other ideas are using plastic military pieces, or those from the Renaissance.

Children do need to learn the rules; however, there are a variety of ways to teach them. They don’t need to get bogged down with a “This is chess, and these are the rules” mentality at four years old. It’s more important to begin to capture their interest and build structure around that.

Perhaps you’re a parent or teacher who’s concerned that a certain child is always on the outside. He/she doesn’t have inclination toward sports activities, or maybe they’re awkward in social settings. You notice it affecting their self-confidence.

Just as chess can build bridges generationally, it provides a platform for those who can’t seem to find their footing. Children who really embrace the game find that they do have hidden talents. Perhaps, they also receive recognition for their skill.

Whatever the reason is that brings your child to the threshold of chess, it’s a door worth opening. A world with new possibilities can be unlocked for children with attention-deficit disorders. Maybe, it’s the first time they’ve experienced success.


Conclusion

It’s not uncommon for parents to begin to learn the art of chess through their children. Sometimes, a child’s enthusiasm for what they’ve discovered becomes a family pastime. You might even consider starting a local chess club for homeschoolers.

What a great way to build a connection with your child through learning chess together. It could be a common ground where you find you each have something to teach the other. These are lasting memories you are creating and will carry with you to share.

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