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In Parkers Prairie, students as young as kindergarten learn chess

Grandpa Bob Foss, a volunteer with the Foster Grandparents program, inspired them.

Vada Jo Hoffman studies her opponent while making a chess move in her kindergarten classroom.
Vada Jo Hoffman, 6, makes her move. She says she thinks chess is pretty easy to learn.
Karen Tolkkinen / Alexandria Echo Press
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PARKERS PRAIRIE — In the Parkers Prairie elementary school library, two second graders chatter over a game of chess.

“You’re in check by the way,” Dilyla Boudin, 8, tells A’livia Flanagin, 7.

“One second,” A’livia replies, deftly sliding her king out of danger.

If second grade students playing chess seems remarkable, then venture down the hall into Allison Beach’s kindergarten room, where half the class is sprawled on the floor, shifting queens and capturing bishops on chess mats.

“No, no!” says Hadlee Noetzelman, 6, realizing too late that she put her pawn in danger.

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“Ha ha,” said Sibley Wurm, also 6, as she immediately saw the error and scooped up the pawn.

Grandpa Bob Foss, a Foster Grandparent at Parkers Prairie Elementary School, plays chess against Spiderman controlled by a Parkers Prairie kindergarten student.
Grandpa Bob Foss, a Foster Grandparent at Parkers Prairie Elementary School, plays chess against Spiderman controlled by a Parkers Prairie kindergarten student.<br/>
Karen Tolkkinen / Alexandria Echo Press

Kids learn chess young in Parkers Prairie, aided by Grandpa Bob Foss, a volunteer with the Foster Grandparents program. Prior to working at Parkers Prairie, Foss, a retired accounting professor, had served as a Foster Grandparent at Voyager Elementary School in Alexandria.

He saw a chess board in the kindergarten classroom, began asking questions and that's how it started.

"Kindergarten kids are well equipped to do it," he said. "Some of the kids that really seem to have learning difficulties, especially in the upper grades, but even in kindergarten, they understand how chess works. Those quick little minds are so shocking to me."

Multiple studies have uncovered various benefits from learning chess, such as improved reading, a greater willingness to take calculated risks, stronger problem-solving skills, and even higher IQs.

When Foss first talked to Beach about teaching her students chess, she readily agreed. He started out with two or three boys, and then other kids saw and wanted to join in. They learned by playing each other on boards, not on computers.

"It surprises people, but I think we underestimate what kids can do sometime," Beach said. "They love it. It's been a great, fun game for them to learn."

Chess has been called the game of kings, and also the king of games. In Armenia, children over the age of 6 are required to learn chess. Harry Potter and his friends mastered a potentially lethal game of chess, and "The Queen's Gambit," a Netflix series about an orphaned chess prodigy, has drawn tens of millions of followers.

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Parkers Prairie Elementary School Principal Steve Radtke said the school used to have a chess club but that was about 10 years ago and as far as he remembered, it didn't extend to kindergarten. But he has found that kindergarteners are capable of learning the game, and that it's not too much pressure on them as long as they're not forced to play it.

“It engages their minds so they’re not on screens,” he said. "You can do chess online but for the most part they’re competing against one another. ... They’re being social and talking and learning the game and learning to get along.”

Fifth-grader Winston Koep, 10, said his dad taught him to play chess when he was in first grade. Now he teaches classmates chess moves and strategies.

Two boys, Winston Koep and Ryker Porter, ponder their chess moves while sitting on the floor of their fifth grade classroom at Parkers Prairie Elementary School.
Two fifth-grade boys, Winston Koep and Ryker Porter, ponder their chess moves on a recent afternoon at Parkers Prairie Elementary School.<br/>
Karen Tolkkinen / Alexandria Echo Press

"It's really fun," he said, while playing against classmate Ryker Porter, 11. "It makes your brain work."

Each boy has a different strategy. Koep said he tries to get his opponent's king out where his pieces can't protect him. Porter said he mostly reacts to what his opponent does.

"It's pretty interesting game," Porter said. "It's fun to play against Winston. He gives me a pretty good challenge."

Ten kindergarten students at Parkers Prairie Elementary School sit on a blue floor mat playing chess. Students get the choice to play chess, and about half the class has learned the game.
Kindergarten students at Parkers Prairie Elementary School play chess. Students get the choice to play chess, and about half the class has learned the game.<br/>
Karen Tolkkinen / Alexandria Echo Press

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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