CHECKMATE! | Chess Club is where an 'old' game meets 'new' minds

At 3:30 p.m. on most Tuesdays, from January to March, chess players gather in the school's library for close to one hour to play the royal game.

After-school activities have always been important and have proven to do wonders for a child's development. "Odyssey of the Mind," "Girls on the Run" and "Bricks for Kidz" are are just a few of the popular after-school activities offered at several schools throughout the United States.

While many school administrators are always looking for new and innovative activities to keep things fresh for the kids, one West Michigan institution decided decades ago it wanted to introduce an after-school activity that takes students all the way back to the 6th century.

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In 1987, Lakeside Elementary School in East Grand Rapids added Chess Club to its after-school activity list.

Thirty-one years later, the club continues to be strong and draw more and more students every year.

"When I took over as instructor, I knew it had to continue," said Shannon Mitchell, who is a kindergarten teacher at Lakeside Elementary, and currently is in her 14th year as Chess Club instructor. "I taught myself while at the same time teaching the kids how to play."

At 3:30 p.m. on most Tuesdays, from January to March, chess players gather in the school's library for close to one hour to play the royal game. Players range in age from kindergarten to fifth grade.

"It's very exciting to watch the little ones," said Mitchell. "It's fun to see their confidence being brought out as they learn how to play."

Mitchell spends a good chunk of the hour helping the novice players learn each piece and what they do. She'll then break away and visit with the more experienced players, offering strategy techniques.

"This game is not as simple as marching across the board," said Mitchell. "You have to start simple and just build upon that."

Included among the 60-plus students who choose to be members of Chess Club are brothers Asher and Quinton Pereira.

"It turned out to be pretty fun so I just kept doing it," said Asher, who is a 4th grader at Lakeside Elementary. "It involves a lot of strategy and you have to always think three steps ahead."

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Asher is a Chess Club veteran. He's currently in his fourth year, while Quinton is beginning his third season.

"Learning how all he pieces moved was interesting to me," said Quinton, who is a 2nd grader at Lakeside Elementary. "Chess is good exercise for my brain."

Sharpening of the mind is one of the major takeaways for each member of Chess Club.

"When they play, they're learning how to think critically and problem solve," added Mitchell. "They don't realize it, but while they're playing chess, they're practicing and working on important life skills."

And the extra brainpower being burned by these students at Chess Club is directly translating back to the classroom.

"A few years ago I had a little boy who struggled in class on a day-to-day basis, then he decided to join Chess Club," said Mitchell. "He did amazing with his focus and problem solving with the strategies we taught.

"Little by little the boy showed improvement in the classroom."

"[Chess Club] helps me become a better learner," said Asher. "It helps me do better in school and get better grades."

Chess leads to championships at Lakeside Elementary. Over the 31 years the club has been in existence, the players have won several state tournament titles, as well as a national championship.

In the 31 years Chess Club has unfolded at Lakeside Elementary School, the students have gone on to compete at state chess tournaments and have won several championships, including a national title. There's a display full of trophies at school.

"It's so fun to watch them at the end of the season when we go to the tournament," said Mitchell. "The way these kids focus, and get excited is really something to see."

It's clear that Chess Club at Lakeside Elementary School isn't an extra recess for the kids, or a glorified after-care program. Instead, it's where an ancient pastime becomes a modern day tool for school.

"It's another opportunity [for young minds] to shine, feel confident and learn," said Mitchell.

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