Wasatch Elementary plays around with chess program

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    By ALI ANDERSON

    anderson@du2.byu.edu

    Playing chess is educational for elementary school students, said Erik Allebest, who spent three days this week teaching students at Wasatch Elementary School the game of chess.

    Allebest, 21, a sophomore from Laguna Hills, Calif., with an open major, has taken the program Academic Chess to many Utah schools.

    “Academic Chess is a program to expose all kids to chess and to improve them scholastically and academically,” Allebest said.

    Allebest said playing chess can improve the minds of children. It forces them to think more logically and spatially.

    “It’s because chess is so complicated,” Allebest said. “It has 32 different pieces, playing on 64 squares. (The kids) have to coordinate those pieces into some kind of logical plan.”

    Studies done by private universities and companies show a dramatic improvement in the reading and math scores of children who learn chess, Allebest said.

    “It also develops social habits and good communication skills,” he said.

    Allebest uses creative artwork, stories and dances in his teaching. He has the students recite phrases like “Pawns are wimpy” and “Bishop does disco” to help them remember how each piece moves.

    Allebest learned his unique teaching techniques from Eric Hicks, the founder of Academic Chess. Hicks developed the techniques to keep the attention of the underprivileged children he taught in Berkeley, Calif.

    “I learned from him, and he’s the best chess teacher I know,” Allebest said.

    Greg Swallow, a University of Utah graduate from Fremont, Calif., and an employee of Academic Chess, said he loves the program.

    “I didn’t believe it when I heard about it. The kids are totally excited and the teachers are thrilled,” Swallow said.

    Stefanie Woods, a BYU graduate from Fairport, N.Y., and an Academic Chess volunteer, said she is impressed by Allebest’s teaching skills.

    “I think it’s amazing that first-graders can learn chess in less than three days. Eric has a way of getting the kids excited about chess,” Woods said.

    Kathryn Spencer, principal of Wasatch Elementary, said the kids are “going nuts” over the Academic Chess program. She said when Allebest first told her about the program, she wasn’t convinced it would be a success.

    After Spencer discussed the program with Wasatch teachers, however, they decided to devote their 30-minute P.E. time to the program for three days. In fact, the teachers were so excited about Academic Chess, they gave up an additional 30 minutes each day to ensure time for it, Spencer said.

    Wasatch Elementary students enjoyed their three days of chess instruction, Spencer said.

    “The dances are the funnest part,” said second-grader, Ryan Hobbs, 7.

    Second-grader, Lyndsay Wygnant, 7, said Academic Chess taught her “how the pieces move.”

    “I like it because it’s so fun,” Wygnant said.

    Allebest said the kids should have fun while they play chess.

    “That’s the most important part — that the kids are having fun, that they’re enjoying chess and that they’re learning from it,” Allebest said.

    Allebest is also starting an after-school Chess Club at Wasatch Elementary School.