Tools for Chess and Executive Functioning

By Tamar Lindenfeld, Founder of Chalkdust Inc.

The tools you bring to the chess table.

When starting a game of chess there are some obvious things that need to be brought to the table–a chess board and chess pieces to start. Familiarity with the rules and your opponent are also important. As you pack up and get your shoes on to head out to play, there are things you are bringing to the game that you aren’t putting in your bag. These are all of the thinking skills that are coming with you, and many of them exist in the front of your brain where your executive functions lie. Here you will learn about some of the most important skills utilized in a game of chess, how they work, and how to strengthen them in order to become a better chess player. 

First, a brief introduction to executive function. Controlled by the frontal lobe, executive function is a group of mental processes that allow us to control our cognitive abilities and behaviors. Executive function skills are how we utilize memory, focus, plan, and multitask all at once. There are four components of executive function: working memory; inhibition; set shifting; and fluency, which can further be broken down into skills that we need in order to be successful. These are the eight neurological constructs. The eight neurological constructs are attention, temporal-sequential ordering, spatial ordering, memory, language, neuromotor functions, social cognition and higher order cognition. 

All of these constructs are valuable when playing chess and refining these skills can improve one’s chess skills. Some of these skills are more readily connected to the game of chess while others seem to work in the background for successful play. Fine motor skills work in connection with spatial ordering to accurately move chess pieces from place to place without disrupting the rest of the board. Attention and focus are necessary to keep track of moves that one’s opponent makes, and without planning it would be challenging for a player to make thoughtful and strategic moves. 

Working with clients ages 1 to 18, a big focus of Chalkdust Inc’s tutoring practices is incorporating executive function skills into the work so that we are not only tutoring our students, but supporting the development of their thinking skills, their organization skills, and their ability to independently manage their workload. Below I outline some easy ways to work on strengthening key skills so that your child can improve their chess game and their overall executive function.

Simple ways to improve planning skills:

-Participating in activities that include a natural order or a checklist, like baking and using a recipe. 

-Board games or card games that require strategy. Children will have to identify steps that help them move towards winning the game.

-Using a calendar.

Simple ways to improve patterning skills:

-Working with legos, books, or even snacks to create patterns. Use what is in front of you!

-Identify what makes the pattern exactly that. Note whether it is same-same-different, or different-same-different-same or something else entirely.

-Look for patterns in nature or around the house.

-Transfer a pattern from one set of objects to another. If you have beads that follow a blue, blue, green pattern, make another pattern using orange, orange, red. 

Simple ways to improve critical thinking skills:

-Ask and think about open-ended questions.

-Think of a hypothesis or come up with reasons why (even if they aren’t correct).

– Play with puzzles.

-Use sorting games to work on building skills in classification, sorting and analysis. 

-Answer W questions 

Simple ways to improve problem solving skills:

-Playing with puzzles.

-Working on mazes or treasure hunts.

-Thinking about moral dilemmas (appropriate for older children)

As the old saying goes, “If you teach a man to fish…”. We apply this philosophy to working with our students that we are working on content, and more importantly on their thinking skills. Through the development of executive function we are able to provide our clients the tools that they need to take on any challenge that they face, including the most difficult of chess opponents.

10 thoughts on “Tools for Chess and Executive Functioning”

  1. Yep. Plus when you learn a new skill set, you are making new neural connections. And those neurons begin to produce neurotransmitters including Serotonin, dopamine and others. So learning chess can also be seen as a mood enhancing behavior.

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