Friday, July 25, 2008

Mellow Chess Camp

Theo's on-going interest in chess and his desire to be with his homeschool buddies lead me to propose a homeschool chess camp to the Seattle Homeschool Group.  At first we planned to do what seems to be the normal chess camp plan: hire a coach and spend hours learning about and playing chess.  

After some serious sticker and commitment shock (5 day chess camp is about $250/"camper" and you are required to provide at least 15 players), I decided to create a plan B.  Otherwise known as The Library Plan - picture, me, my Seattle Public Library Card and every single juvenile chess book in the library system. 

Further feedback from interested families showed that while our 5-8 year olds really wanted time everyday to play chess, they didn't like to lose and they didn't want anything super structured.  So mellow seemed to be the distinguishing feature of what our camp would be.  We planned 2 hours for 5 days to play and learn about chess, with our primary goal to be having fun.  

In every email I sent out, I made sure to include the fact that "I have NO idea what I'm doing. I'm just making this up, and all ideas and suggestions are welcome." 

Monday morning, 6 families showed up at our house.  We talked a little about what kids wanted to get from camp, how to be a good sport, what to do if they weren't having fun.  Then kids set themselves up to play.  And they played all week long.  Sometimes 1 on 1, sometimes as teams, they did chess puzzles and mini-games, they built chess-piece towers and played hide-the-pawn.  We adults tried to keep them focused and be flexible and responsive to their needs and energy levels.  Seems they all mobbed their dads in the evenings to play chess with them, and they all finished up Friday excited to play more chess again another day.  Mission accomplished!

Oh, and did I mention the total budget for the entire 5 days? $0.  The whole dang thing was free!  

Here are a few things I learned along the way:
Being an expert in the field is not a prerequisite to hosting a camp.  I started out the week knowing how to move the pieces around the board.  But I needed to keep ahead of the kids and have something interesting for the next day.  So, in working with another mom who knew more about chess than me and pouring through the 17 books I got from the library, I learned a lot about chess.  Enough at least to keep the kids interested, enough in fact, that I'd like to spend plenty more time this year learning and playing. Hey - it was fun for me too!

Playing chess is work.  After about an hour, the kids needed a break.  Maybe next year I'd only plan an hour for playing, or plan 3 hours so there could be an hour of chess time, and hour for "recess" and food and then a third hour for another game.

Teams are great for kids who don't like to lose.  Somehow these kids didn't take a team loss anywhere near as personally as 1:1 loss.  That said, letting kids team up on their own isn't a great idea, too many messy social issues can occur.  Lesson learned, we had an adult pre-determine the teams and kids were fine with it. She was very clever and broke up the "best friends" pairs that tended to exclude others, but set them up against each other so they still got to play on the same board.

Homeschool families come in packages.  So when one hosts a camp for the 5-8s, one also gets the siblings.  Fortunately, one also gets the parents.  We adults split up, the chess interested ones took over coaching responsibilities, the others took the "non-chess player" siblings.  Next time I do this, I'll have someone come up with a daily plan for them, too. Probably doing most of the same things the siblings ended up doing, but with more purpose and better supplies: a trip to the park, finger painting, other craft projects, water play if the sun cooperates. 

A little hyperventilating over not being perfectly ready never actually hurt anyone. And it turns out, nice people don't care if I'm not perfectly prepared at all time.  Go figure.

Chess was not the most important thing happening this week.  In my opinion it is always the social dynamics that dominate.  Having a high number of moms on hand who could be attentive to how kids were interacting, reading the general energy level of the games and providing coaching on how to handle interpersonal challenges provided more benefit than I think my 7 year old would have gotten out of any fancy $250/week professional camp.  

So is an on-going Chess Club next?
I don't know yet.  We'll have to see how our fall schedule shakes out.  However, if we do, I have a list based on my perusal of the 17 books I check-out.

Sara's Chess Learning Plan 
(based on the understanding that I really have very little idea what I'm doing and I'm making this all up as I go along)

Work through these books from SPL, presenting the information and doing the exercises, I think the whole of these books would take about 9 months to work through. Many of them repeat much of the same information, but at more complex levels.

1. Chess for Children by Murry Chandler.  This is a basic, yet delightful how-to book with lots of cartoon drawings and random kid jokes.  Probably 10-12 "lessons" worth of information.
2. Chess From First Moves to Checkmate by Daniel King. The how-to in this book doesn't differ much from the Chandler book, but it has a great couple of pages on the history of chess and the VIPs of the chess world.
3. Comprehensive Chess Course, Volume 1 by Roman Pelts.  This is a 12 lesson tried and true curriculum that I think might be a little too dry for very beginners, but a great 2nd pass of information for slightly less beginnery beginners.
4. Chess Tactics for Students by John A. Bain.  This book features introductions to 13 important tactics with lots of exercises/puzzles to practice the concepts.
5. DK Chess: Strategies to Master your Game.  This is a flashy book with too many words and pictures on a page in the finest of DK tradition.  But it also has some truly interesting and helpful tidbits on individual pieces and their strategies.
6.  202 Checkmates for Children by Wilson and Alberson.  101 mate-in-one puzzles and 101 mate-in-two puzzles that the kids (and moms) enjoyed once we learned to set them up on our own boards. I might hand a few of these out each week for kids to work through (together?) each time we met.

Other Resources
At home, Theo and I spend lots of time working through the tutorials at ChessMagnetSchool.  If we were to do a club, I might recommend everyone joining (it's $30/year) so kids could progress at home at their own pace and play each other on-line in between meetings, maybe even over speaker-phone. Kind of like World of Warcraft, except NOT.

One resource book sheerly for adults that  impressed me and helped keep the time fun yet still focused on chess is Chess for Success by Maurice Ashley.  

The book I really wanted to find but never did was a thinking strategy book.  One that set out a concrete process for the kids to work through one each and every turn that would go something like this:
- What did my opponent just do - what is their plan - which of my pieces are threatened?
- What is my overall plan - what piece would I best move this turn?
- If I move that piece, what will happen to it and the game?
If you know of that book, please, leave me a comment!

In closing
I highly recommend hosting a camp for something you know nothing about! It can be great fun, an easy opportunity to share a learning passion with your children and a fantastic way to grow connection to your community.

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