By Ben Botkin
Third-grader Taylor Johnstun peered intently at a chess board Friday during a game with classmate Alexis Partida at Jefferson Elementary School in Jerome.
“Got you,” the 8-year-old Johnstun said, taking one of Partida’s pawns with his rook.
Nine-year-old Partida reacted quickly.
“Got you back,” he said, eliminating Johnstun’s rook with his own.
Photos by MEAGAN THOMPSON/Times-News.
Third graders Yoana Estrada and Esmeralda Mendoza get some pointers from their teacher, Tracy Newton, as they play chess Friday afternoon at Jefferson Elementary School in Jerome. The school is one of several in Idaho to implement a new program called First Move, which teachers hope will help children glean analytical and mathematics skills from the game of chess.
The students are part of First Move, a new program at the school that teaches chess to elementary students. Educators and chess advocates say the game teaches skills that extend beyond the corners of a chess board. For Idaho schools, First Move is a project the State Department
of Education funded last year as a pilot program in 100 classrooms. This year, the agency funded 100 more classrooms, a two-year investment of $120,000. Besides Jerome School District, the program is also in schools at Twin Falls School District, Blaine County School District and Murtaugh School District.
The money covers the cost of game sets and curriculum materials that come from America’s Foundation for Chess, a Kirkland, Washington based organization that is encouraging schools across the nation to teach chess to youngsters.
The foundation began First Move in 2000, and the program is now taught to about 47,000 students in 27 states, including Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
“It engages kids in a natural way,” said Wendi Fischer, vice president of the foundation. “They’re having fun learning, which is a positive in and of itself, and it teaches them strategic thinking and analytical thinking.”
Beyond that, students develop skills in areas like math and history while learning to how to capture their opponent’s king.
For example, the movement of the pieces and the coordinates of the board visually show students the angles of geometry, Fischer said.
The game, based on relationships in the Middle Ages, teaches students about the different classes of that era, such as the peasants who served royalty as pawns in battle.
That lesson was taught to students in Jerome shortly before the students began playing Friday. Tracy Newton, their teacher, quizzes the students on what group the game’s bishops represent: royalty, the church or peasants.
“I find that kids really do like the challenge of a chess game because the outcome is anybody’s guess,” Newton said, adding that the game has educational benefits for students. “They have to predict and problem-solve.”
At Jefferson Elementary School, second and third-grade students have a chess lesson once a week. For some students, it’s the highlight of their week.
“The most fun part is you get to capture the pieces and then there’s the king and queen,” said 8-year-old Samantha Lewis, adding it’s more enjoyable compared to other classes. “When you just sit in a class, it’s kind of boring.”
The students haven’t learned all their chess moves yet, but Partida already knew the goal of the game when playing with Johnstun.
“I can’t let you catch my king,” he said.