Researchers Examine the Impact of Playing Chess on Developing Minds
Chess is one of the oldest games in the world, and it’s long been considered a sign of great intelligence of sophistication to play it. Many people think you have to be really smart to know your way around a chessboard, and researchers at VCU are investigating whether learning to play the game at a young age could actually make children smarter.
“Having (children) have as part of their identity this game for really intelligent people really opens up their eyes to the possibility that they could actually do anything. If you can do really well at the smartest person in the world’s game, why couldn’t you be excellent at math? Why couldn’t you be a scientist?” said Dr. Zewelanji Serpell, associate professor of psychology at VCU and one of the primary investigators on the Mind Match Chess Project.
The Mind Match project examines the impact of an after-school chess club on children’s executive functions like attention, memory, and inhibition skills, and studies whether learning to play results in positive changes to students’ classroom and home behavior.
“We can inspire kids and build their cognitive skills while they enjoy learning other life lessons, such as the benefit of persisting after struggling or initially failing” said Dr. Serpell.
The project, which started in 2011 while Serpell was at Virginia State University, was funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. Serpell collaborated on the development, implementation and evaluation of the chess program with Dr. Teresa Parr, adjunct instructor of psychology at VCU, and Dr. Michelle Ellefson, formally at VCU but now a member of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.
“This started as a project that included local people in Virginia getting together to think about ways we could harness our understanding of how children’s brains develop, to explore doing something unique in schools that would improve children’s academic performance, but it evolved into an international research collaboration,” Serpell said.
The Mind Match project was implemented with elementary school children from large urban school districts with a high proportion of underrepresented ethnic minority students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The curriculum used to teach kids the game was developed by Dr. Parr and Maurice Ashley, the first African American chess grandmaster.
“[Ashley] has a real commitment to thinking about ways to give access to something that has historically been a European game, to make it accessible to students for whom this might not be a typical activity in their community context,” said Serpell.
Playing chess not only boosts these children’s self-esteem, it also requires the application of executive functions that are developed during childhood. The age group on which Mind Match focused, between eight and ten years old, is a key time in a child’s mental development because it represents a shift from using basic information processing skills to using more advanced problem-solving skills.
“The brain is primed to develop these particular cognitive skills and their application in educational settings is really good if you can intervene early and continue to support their development. It’s also important to allow some time for the benefits of the gain in cognitive skill to actualize in students’ learning behavior in school,” said Serpell.
To determine whether playing chess had an impact on their participants’ cognitive skills, the children were given periodic assessments designed to test their executive functions such as their inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and problem-solving abilities. In addition, both parents and teachers filled out questionnaires about behavioral and academic changes they observed in the children.
“Having that multi-informant type of assessment was really important for the project because then we were able to see if teachers align with parents on these types of social behaviors in kids,” said Tennisha Riley, a psychology graduate student who trained undergraduates at VCU to administer the Mind Match curriculum and collect and enter the assessment data.
Riley used data from the Mind Match program to complete her master’s thesis, examining which executive functions contribute to either pro-social behavior or aggression. Findings at this stage are preliminary, but Serpell hopes they will eventually show an association between playing chess and improvements in both how students think and behave in the classroom, and ultimately lead to better learning and academic success.
“It’s been a really exciting and interesting project. I’m excited that we are at the point that we can analyze the data because if we can demonstrate that we were able to build cognitive skills using this game, that would be a pretty powerful statement. I think it could help expand our ideas about what could and perhaps should happen to support student learning in schools,” Serpell said.
The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Grant R305A110932 awarded to the University of Cambridge. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.
By Megan Schiffres
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