A game changer for maths problems

Marisa van der Merwe won the Shoprite/Checkers Women of the Year award for 2012 in the category for teachers.

Marisa van der Merwe won the Shoprite/Checkers Women of the Year award for 2012 in the category for teachers.

Marisa van der Merwe is the winner of the Shoprite/Checkers Women of the Year award for 2012 in the teachers category. She is a teacher at Hoërskool Waterkloof in Pretoria and also manages the school’s chess centre. She is the developer of the ground-breaking MiniChess programme and a trustee of Moves for Life.

The programme offers education through chess-related games at foundation-phase level to assist pupils to develop thinking and life skills as well as to understand mathematical and scientific concepts. Van der Merwe, in partnership with community and business leaders, launched the programme nationally as Moves for Life in 2010. At present, the programme reaches about 20000 pupils every week in classrooms in most South African provinces and teachers receive regular training and support in implementing the programmes.

Garry Kasparov endorsed the initiative during his recent visit to South Africa, calling Moves for Life “the most scientific programme in the world linking chess with education”. Two related projects are currently under construction: the MiniChess computer programme and a new programme for pupils in high school, which will link chess with the maths syllabus.  

You have just won the Shoprite/Checkers Women of the Year award for 2012 in the teachers category. What does it mean to you?
It is an absolute highlight of my life. I am very honoured and also humbled at the same time. This award will encourage the programme teams to put even more energy and heart into programme development. It has also given the programmes enormous local and international media coverage and support. For example, the Kasparov Chess Foundation sent its accolades and a nine-page article on the award was published on a world-class website (chessbase.com). What is even more important is that this award helps to place South Africa at the forefront of education through chess in the world.

When did you form MiniChess and why?
MiniChess evolved over 20 years or so from a hobby project into a formalised and well-structured educational programme, tried and tested in a practical way by pupils and teachers in South African classrooms. I started the programme in my garage, teaching children from the community. I soon realised that it added much value for the youngsters, not only because it was a lot of fun or that many of them achieved provincial and national colours for chess as a sport, but more so because they excelled academically and showed significant improvement in their life skills. Over time, it became my dream to teach these children to think critically, be able to analyse situations and solve problems. The MiniChess programme offers all of this.

How effective is the ­programme, particularly in relation to teaching maths and science?
Pupils experience the programme as playing a game, not as doing maths. This gives them a different mind-set. The programme uses the chessboard as a number grid and illustrates abstract concepts concretely on the board. This means that concepts such as numbers, geometry, multiplication, direction and symmetry can be learned in colourful and fun-filled ways. Also,  many other mathematical concepts are illustrated concretely through the games. Another advantage is that a teacher does not need any previous chess knowledge to be able to teach the MiniChess programme. Learning maths and pre-maths concepts in fun ways helps youngsters to perform in maths from the very start. This builds their self-­confidence and prepares them for ongoing learning in future.

Briefly tell us how the programme works in a typical classroom situation
The MiniChess programme is structured in age-specific lesson plans for the four levels of the foundation phase — grade R to grade three. Teachers receive a teachers manual, training for all four levels, teacher aids and support to implement the programme during one class a week throughout the year. Pupils complete projects in their workbooks and also develop from doing pre-learning exercises to playing simple MiniChess games, such as Pawn Soccer and Hungry Horse, and gradually proceed to play proper tournament chess over time, all the while building their understanding and life skills. The programme is not syllabus-driven but rather child-centred, working towards achieving the generic educational outcomes for the various age groups.

Since you founded the ­project, are you beginning to see ­benefits or changes that you had hoped for and, if so, what are they?
Since the national roll-out of the MiniChess programmes in 2011 we have experienced amazing results — and much more quickly than we expected. The programme has a life-changing impact on early childhood development and the school readiness of grade R pupils. It teaches these little ones spatial concepts, numbers, fine motor skills, reasoning and problem-solving, for instance, in concrete, fun-filled and playful ways, while building their self-confidence. We believe that implementing this programme at preschool level in South Africa will turn around the future of our children from “I don’t understand” to “I can do it”.

How many schools are ­benefiting from the initiative?
It is being implemented in about 100 schools with about 400 teachers and about 20000 pupils taking part, on a weekly basis, at foundation-phase level during the school day. Older pupils engage with the programme as an extra curricular activity.

How can schools be part of it?
Any school and teacher can use the programme to benefit their pupils. The programmes is easy to use, effective and well structured, with a strong support base. Schools that carry their own costs can start the programme immediately. Those  that need financial support will need time to secure sponsorship. The programme is not expensive, but there are expenses involved such as the cost of equipment, training and workbooks. The costs differ from school to school, depending on the number of pupils and teachers at the school. If the school is situated in a rural area, this may also impact the budget in terms of delivery costs.

How do you relax?
I love the simple things in life, like spending time with my family and friends, watching a movie together or eating out. My garden and home are my haven away from the busy Gauteng adrenalin-run life. I find that it feeds my creative juices to relax at home with my loved ones, including my dogs and the cat. I also enjoy sleeping late, reading, listening to music or visiting an art market, doing Sudoku and, do not forget, a quick chess game. I love long lazy walks on the beach when on holiday, with the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair.
For more information on the ­programme visit: movesforlife.co.za or minichess.co.za

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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