Chess and recess

Last week I saw Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen on a 60 Minutes segment.  It’s a fun piece to watch; Carlsen is unusual among prominent chess players in that his manner is light and good-humored. That’s perhaps why he’s emerging as a bit of a superstar, and inspiring young people to try chess.  It’s by no means that other chess players aren’t light and good-humored; only that the visible ones have often done a fair amount of scowling and sulking in view of the public.

The segment mentions that chess is being taught in schools throughout the world and is compulsory in some countries.  I was interested to hear that because so many of the young people I meet who are bored by academic offerings that don’t challenge or engage them have tremendous capacity and patience for the likes of chess, but have to squeeze it into their extra-curricular time.  Chess gets so much done in the way of training the brain to handle large amounts of information and weigh options and consequences, of generally sharpening cognitive skill that it’s difficult to understand why we wouldn’t make room for it in the course of a school day.

There’s also mention of Carlsen’s physical exercise regimen as essential to his ability to concentrate.  It sounds like he takes it for granted, that the exercise is as important as the rest of the preparation he does for a game, at the computer and in his mind. Meanwhile so much of what we mandate for and expect of children dismisses what science has shown about that necessity of physical activity for optimal brain function.  John Ratey’s Spark is an excellent book on the topic. It’s interesting.  Children in school often report that recess is their favorite part of the day.  Adults laugh this off and cite it as reason for having to force kids to spend more time on academic subjects.  They only want to run around; they’re lazy and don’t know what’s good for them.  Maybe they know exactly what’s good for them, and that if we really wanted their memories and their cognitive skills to reach full capacity, there’d be more recess, not less.

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