Why Geeking Out on Games Is Good for Kids
Playing games in school develops the kind of social and emotional skills that translate to adult success.
Eva Moskowitz, a long-time Harlem resident and mother of three, is founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, the highest-performing charter school network in New York City. In 2006, Ms. Moskowitz launched her first school in Harlem, and in just nine years, her network has grown to 32 schools serving more than 9,000 children in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Success Academy schools serve a high-poverty population, yet they consistently outperform New York’s most affluent school districts. The flagship Harlem school was chosen as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2012 (one of 219 across the country) by the U.S. Department of Education.
Ms. Moskowitz’s leadership in education reform began with her service as a member of the New York City Council. As chair of the Council’s Education Committee, she visited hundreds of city schools and was known for her investigatory hearings. No aspect of public education – from lighting quality to teacher practice – was too insignificant or too controversial to be explored. Success Academy’s distinctive school design, teaching, and curriculum grew out of those experiences, as did Ms. Moskowitz’s forceful advocacy for national reform. After completing her B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. in American history at Johns Hopkins University, Ms. Moskowitz was a history professor and taught civics at Prep for Prep, a program for gifted minority students.
“Thousands of kids are now going to failing schools, where they have few opportunities to learn and fewer opportunities to stretch their minds in chess, debate, math clubs,” says Ms. Moskowitz. “We fool ourselves into thinking that this is an inner-city problem or a poverty problem or an African-American problem. The reality is that mediocrity is a pandemic in American education.”
Eva Moskowitz: Schools can be kind of Cromwellian places. They can be puritanical. They can be places where it's reading, writing, and arithmetic and nothing else. And games are actually quite educational if they're educational. When you say, "Okay we're going to play Monopoly," the first half an hour is taken up by which rules we're playing by. And there's just ridiculous disagreements. And the same is true for physical games. I don't know if you're familiar with foursquare, but it's one of my favorite recess games. What rules are we playing with? The kids could use up all of their recess time just negotiating the rules. And it sort of seems a little bit silly, but it's actually very healthy for children to know how to negotiate and navigate. If you think about an adult workplace and all the internal politics of who's going to lead the meeting? Who gets to speak at the meeting? Whose word is worth more? I mean office politics actually is the same thing as what's going on in foursquare as they're negotiating the rules. And so having those social and emotional skills and giving kids the space and the time for that is actually very important to learning and development.
My eldest son is a special needs child and was very delayed in his language. He was three, which is very unusual and really didn't speak very much. He kind of became more verbal after the age of three, which is very late in development. And I took him to all sorts of specialists trying to figure out what was wrong and I got all sorts of very frightening diagnoses. But my husband started playing chess with my son and it was a huge sigh of relief because I could tell that there was a lot going on here even though he had very limited verbal ability. And one of the beautiful things — there are many beautiful things about chess — but one of the beautiful things about chess is that it's non-verbal. And in schools teachers tend to valorize verbal agility. So I did very well as a child because I chat a lot. You could be highly, highly intelligent, but not have that level of verbal agility.
And so one of the things we have to do in schools is give different types of children with different strengths and growth areas opportunities to learn and be confident and excel. And so what I love about chess is not only is it just a beautiful game and as important as mathematical thinking and strategic thinking, but it puts language aside. And so it gives children who are less verbal an opportunity to shine and be confident and have a level of mastery and so much of school is about reading and verbal agility. And so you create this kind of sacred space where a different kind of intelligence can kind of bubble to the top.
Playing games in school not only develops the kind of social and emotional skills that translate to adult success, but also offers a means by which special needs kids without vocal agility can demonstrate their ability in nontraditional ways. In this video interview, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz shares how playing chess allowed her son the chance to shine. She also delves into the need for schools to allow different types of children with different strengths and growth areas their own opportunities to learn and excel.
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