Chess gains fans in Douglas schools

Instructor says game expands critical thinking and other skills

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Lior Lapid believes in the power of chess. More than just a game, Lapid said, it’s a nontraditional way to teach kids critical thinking and math skills.

Lapid has introduced dozens of Douglas County School District students to the game through summer camps and chess clubs launched at several elementary schools last year. He plans to continue the clubs with the new school year.

“I would welcome him back,” Coyote Creek Elementary Principal Gigi Whalen said. “The kids really loved it. And I think (chess) has a lot of math and problem solving that gets kids to do critical thinking.”

Lapid, founder of PALS Chess Academy, also started clubs at Heritage, Fox Creek and Copper Mesa elementary schools, as well as the Platte River and STEM charter schools.

“Chess has been my passion since I was a boy,” said Lapid, a Denver resident originally from Israel. “Chess is a lot more popular there. It’s now being taught as part of the school system in 30 countries, including Israel. My goal is to popularize it here.”

Research backs up Lapid’s contention that chess helps players recognize complex patterns, and increases problem-solving skills. Several national organizations are dedicated to promoting the game in schools.

“Education in this country has been suffering to some extent and test scores reflect that,” Lapid said. “I’m not saying chess is the solution. But there is a lot of evidence that suggests it can help with critical thinking, planning ahead, arithmetic, algebra.

“I’ve seen kids who are otherwise socially awkward or having problems with their self-esteem; chess for a lot of them gives them something to feel more confident about, and it’s also an alternative to video games.”

Lapid’s teaching methods focus on keeping the game fun.

“Sometimes chess is perceived as this very dry, mathematical activity,” he said. “I think you can teach it with story-telling and humor.”

Ten-year-old Ashley Becker attested to the fun aspect. The STEM Middle School student attended a summer chess camp hosted by Lapid at Heritage Elementary.

“It was really fun,” she said. “We even got to invent our own kinds of chess. When you have the right teacher, they can make the learning really intriguing.”

Becker believes that learning carries over into the classroom.

“Sometimes when I would come back from a chess game, I would feel ready for school and ready to learn about anything,” she said.

Castle Pines parent Dion Boeke saw the social benefits when his shy son Torin attended a summer camp.

“It was a different way to socialize,” Boeke said. “By the end of the week, he had really good friends there. I think that game really brought them together.”

Boeke’s also sold on the game as an educational tool, and hopes to start a club at Timber Trail Elementary.

“I think it teaches them to think strategically and critically,” he said. “It’s a way for them to actively learn as opposed to just passively playing video games or something like that.”

Mile High Chess Club, Colorado Master Chess Inc. and Strategic Kids also offer chess programs in Douglas County schools.

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