Children Need an Outlet to Thrive: Why not Chess?

Part One of a series of articles about chess and children’s wellbeing

Peter Boross-Harmer
School Principal, Toronto District School Board
Former Board Chair, Chess Institute of Canada

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where many are struggling and having a difficult time coping with daily existence. Young children especially crave daily social interaction with their peers and long for opportunities to engage with their friends in various activities. Many education experts have noted that schools being closed creates a gap in our young people’s academic and social development.

I have no doubt that there will be gaps, and children will reflect the limitations that have been placed on them and their parents over the course of the past 14 months.

Peter Boross-Harmer

Having been an avid organizer of sporting, academic and drama-related events for students over the past 30 years, I now see how much our children are missing these events, some for a second year. They don’t have the opportunity to shine and showcase their talents in venues outside of the regular classroom. They are missing unique opportunities to strive to achieve different goals for themselves and their teams, as well as to establish friendships and perhaps life-long bonds with others through their shared interests.

I feel a great sense of loss for our youth because I know first-hand just how much some of these activities mean to a young person, especially one struggling to fit in, like I was when I immigrated to Canada at the age of 11. But I managed to find a good place in my new country making life-long friends, visiting new places, and truly stretching as a person—all through the game of chess.

My personal development through chess started at age 5, in Budapest, Hungary. My grandfather took me daily to an outdoor giant chessboard where adults would play and where I was drawn to the magic of the game. He encouraged me to join a chess club and I found myself surrounded by other young players, most of whom were much better than I was. We had weekly training sessions with coaches. On weekends, we would represent our club in team matches. I gained a critical understanding of just how important each player was on the team because each one of our individual matches was worth the same for the team’s total, no matter what board you played on – first or last.

When my mom and I moved to Toronto, Canada, I left everything familiar to me far behind. I had not wanted to move here and struggled considerably adjusting to a different life while learning a new language. Certainly, my biggest disappointment was that Toronto did not have the chess-supportive environment that I was accustomed to.

It was purely by chance that I discovered that our school’s music teacher played chess. I convinced him to start up a chess club in our school, Winchester PS. He made me responsible for setting up and arranging boards, while he supervised club members. I was incredibly grateful that he was willing to stay after school or at lunch so that we could play. He even purchased some books and small trophies and organized a tournament with my help. This outlet boosted my self-confidence and helped me adjust to life here much better. I began to feel that I truly belong here. I suspect that this is a feeling experienced by many young children, who enter our school system for the very first time and long for something familiar.

Chess can be a key activity that brings about a positive life transformation, whether children are facing the stressful realities of a global pandemic or a move to a new country.

Online chess in Hartley Bay School, BC, in 2020

As a former Board Chair for Chess Institute of Canada, I am excited that this charity’s online chess programs, clubs and tournaments are currently filling a vital gap in children’s lives—by helping children have fun, build mental strength and learn essential life skills, while easing the crushing isolation so many of them are currently feeling.

Feature image: Children take their first steps in chess during a chess program at Flemington Public School in Toronto in 2018.
Photo by Rose Tuong.