I am not really a Psycho, but a psychologist, although the two do go hand and hand a bit sometimes. I live in Germany, but I was born and raised in the USA.

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How to teach very young children how to play chess

According to Piaget’s model of cognitive development, a child under the age of ca. eight cannot learn how to play chess. While that is true, there is much fun to be had as soon as a child stops putting everything in their mouth, which usually stops at about 18 months.

  1. Teach the child to separate black pieces from white pieces. Put all 32 pieces in a pile and put two bowls, left and right, in front of the child. Demonstrate the separating action by picking up a white piece, saying white, and then dropping it in one of the bowls. Then pick up a black piece, say black, and put it in the other bowl. Do this one more time for each color. Then tell the child, “separate.” Instinctively the child will pick up a piece If he does not prompt to do so by moving his hand in the pile. Say the piece’s color; he picks it up and moves over to the correct bowl. If he does not let go (and he probably will not), prompt him to drop the piece by shaking it gently. Say the color as he drops the piece, and then once more (3 times is a charm. When teaching speech and language). Also, you may have to prompt a lot in the beginning, even essentially do all the work yourself, especially if the child is very young, < 2 years. The golden rule for prompting is: “as much as necessary, as little as possible.” Also, the real key to this is praise, lots and lots of praise, especially in the beginning. You can pick up the child and throw him in the air, do a dance, go crazy and have fun.
  2. After the child can do that with at least 70% accuracy, we will use the same procedure as above to teach the child to separate the pawn from the other pieces of the same color. Say, “pawn” and “not a pawn.” Do this with both colors, saying ‘pawn’ and ‘not a pawn.’ this is cognitively much harder because ‘not a …’ is much more complicated to grasp cognitively.
  3. Next, we will teach the child the names of the other pieces and how to recognize them. Put the Rooks, Knights, Bishops, King, and Queen in a pile in front of the child. Start from the outside and work inwards. Take Rook, show it to the child, say ‘Rook,’ ‘This is a Rook,’ ‘Find the Rook.’ Prompt as much as necessary and as little as possible. Do the same for the Knight and Bishop until only the King and Queen are leftover. This makes for the perfect opportunity to teach the concepts’ same’ and ‘different.’
  4. Now we will start setting up the board. After the Pawns have been separated from the other pieces, take three white pawns and place them on the second rank on the A, B, C files. Tell the child to finish the row. Generally, you will want the child to do this from left to right unless you are from a country that reads from right to left. 
  5. The back row. Setting up the back row is a perfect opportunity to teach the child to follow more than one command at a time. This is more difficult for a child to learn than it seems. (Some adults have difficulty following more than one instruction at a time!) Tell the child, ‘Put one rook here and the other Rook here”, as you point to the squares where the Rooks belong. The child will probably only put one of the rooks in place and wait for you to repeat the command: Do not do that. If the child only places one Rook on the board and waits for an additional prompt. Do not do anything for a moment. Then, take the Rook back off the board, put it back in a pile, and repeat the command from the beginning: “Put one rook here and put the other rook here.” Proceed the same way with the knight and the bishop. If you remain consequent and teach the young child to follow more than one command at a time, you are more likely to have later a teenager, whom you can tell, “do your homework, then clean your room, and empty all the trash cans,” without the child coming back to you in between saying I am done with that, what now.
  6. So by now, the child has learned to set up the chessboard. Now it is time to learn how the pieces move. Children under the age of four may not have yet developed the cognitive abilities to remember ‘cognitively’ how the pieces move. But they can remember ‘somatic’ (body/movement memory). 
  7. Next, we teach the child the first ten moves of some basic openings so that the adult falls into the opening and resigns trap. As black, I play a bad opening and have the child learn the steps to forking the King and Rook and Queen and Rook. Then while I go for the ‘Schäfer Mate.’ I do not know what it is called in English, but it is the opening in which white plays e4, Bc4, Qh5, and tries to checkmate with Qxf7. I would also suggest having the child play white and learning the moves to the Queen’s Gambit trap in which black tries to keep the pawn advantage. In doing so, the child is not learning how to play chess but rather only learning through motor memory where the various pieces (can) go. However, after learning the motions of some of the basic openings, when the child’s cognition catches up, the child will have basic opening skills as basic opening knowledge eventually begins to sink in. Here is a video of my daughter, not yet three years old, playing blitz as if she knew what she was doing. Also, go ahead and use a clock. The kids like pushing the button, and they might as well learn not to forget to push the button now.
  8. After the child has learned the motions and motor skills of moving and taking pieces, it is time for dice chess. Print out the classic icons of the six chess pieces, cut them out, and glue one to each of the six sides of a die. Now you have a chess die. Dice Chess follows the same rules as standard chess with a few exceptions, and all the pieces move the same way as they do in standard. But, if you roll a piece that cannot move, then it is the other player’s turn. As such, you need a pawn or a knight to ‘come out.’ You have to move the piece you roll, so in dice chess, one does not really have to keep their pieces protected. Instead, one learns to attack the King, kamikaze style. Because if the King is in check, that player has to roll the necessary piece to get out of check, or the game is lost. So, it is a fun, fast game in which the child learns how the pieces move but does not have to know which piece to move, where, and how they move together. When I teach older kids how to play chess (first grade and above), I usually skip steps 1-7 and start with dice chess.
  9. After the child has become good at dice chess, knows how all the pieces move and how to attack the King, standard chess is just a hop, skip and jump away. But the child will protest because dice chess is fun and easy.