Play Go And Grow!


Why Every School and Library Should Teach Children Go

by Roy Laird, Ph.D.

Click here to download the Power Point presentation

Click here to view Dr. Laird's talk at the 2012 International Go Symposium


Competitive games stimulate cognitive and social development in many ways. Game-based teaching strategies can be an effective complement to traditional methods for several reasons:

Intrinsic Motivation: By definition, any game has an objective that engages the player. Traditional methods rely on the student's wish to please teacher and parents, which can also be effective. Game-based strategies add a new level of engagement.

Relevant Practice: Serious players study the game closely, knowing that their work will pay off when they play. Traditional learning offers less of this, How often does a child have a practical use for multiplication tabels? (One answer: every time they play go, as we will discuss later.)

Timely Feedback: Behaviorists know that the less time passes between stimulus and response, the stronger the reinforcement. In game play, feedback on the benefits or deficits of each move is immediate.

Timely Recall: Knowledge and skill are worthless, except when you need them. The ability to recall relevant knowledge and expwerience at the proper time is an important function that is also strengthened during game play.

Interpersonal Context: Introducing games and puzzles to the school environment creates a different dynamic, as teachers and student approach a problem together. The Maths Arcade movement in British univerisites uses a variety of puzzles and games to engage students and faculty in a "logic-based social environment," hoping to inspire and model rational thinking and problem solving.

Chess, which has become an important part of many after-school programs and a growing presence during the school day, is widely recognized for its beneficial impact. The ancient Asian game of Go provides all the benefits of chess, as well as several additional important unique features:

  • With its emphasis on balance and constructive focus, the game teaches values such as restraint, cooperation in the service of a larger goal, etc.
  • Brain studies have shown that playing Go engages more different areas of the brain and may even produce physical changes.
  • Go links naturally to core curriculum items in several areas.

Note: To learn more about highlighted text, click on the text to reveal related links.

The Importance of Play

Competitive Play

Chess: A Nearly Perfect Meta-Learning Tool

Go: The Perfect Tool

Recent Research

Links To Core Curriculum

Go and the "Three Games"

Why Isn't Go More Popular in the West? And What Can Be Done?

The Importance of Play

"Play" is a word with many meanings, some implying a shallow and meaningless pastime. That which is frivolous or trivial is said to be "child's play." When we mean business, we are "not playing around." Other meanings reflect a deeper, more profound experience. An impressive drama is a "great play." "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." " The orchestra played beautifully." A clever maneuver is "well played."

Perhaps the essence of play is that it is intrinsically satisfying. Although it may achieve important goals -- motor skills, social learning -- it pursues no larger purpose. Infants begin playfully exploring their bodies and the nearby world (crib, Mom) soon after birth. As they awaken to the larger world, toddlers discover the fun of attunement games such as "tickle" and "peek-a-boo" with familiar people, but may play independently around other children ( parallel play), except for occasional conflict over a toy. Repetitive play -- filling, opening-and-closing, hiding-and-seeking -- evolves into representational play. Pretend play, alone and with others, builds social and emotional skills and promotes language development and problem-solving ability.

Play implies active interplay, not just passive experience. Think of the difference between watching a TV show or movie and playing a video game on the same screen. Neuirologically, this activates the thalamus, which regulates consciousness and arousal, so that attention, concentration and interest level are high. Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi tells us that when we meet a difficult challenge with sufficient skill to master it, the resulting "flow" is one of life's most sublime moments. A cellist performing a Bach Suite, a dancer executing a perfect tour jete, a strong player of mind sports deeply contemplating the next move, these are examples of what Maslow would call called "peak experience."

Competitive Play

As children learn to cooperate with one another in social groups, it becomes possible to play out aggressive themes and drives in a socially acceptable way, and the ability to engage in competitive play emerges. Most parents support and encourage their children's interest in sports such as soccer, even if they are not sports fans.

Mind sports also offer many opportunities for growth and development. A different skill set from physical sports is required; children who may not be athletically gifted can discover a realm where they excel. Skills that mindsport players need, and develop, include:

  • Attention-concentration: Players must maintain focus throughout the game to succeed.

  • Locus of control/agency: Players control what happens, rather than simply counting on luck or fate to decide the outcome.

  • Sportsmanship: As in physical sports, players learn to play by the rules, and to be be modest in victory, gracious in defeat and honest in dealing with opponents.

  • Sequential thinking: Players must anticipate future developments, and use methods such as heuristics, formulas, decision trees, and intuition to look ahead, understand the opponent's plan and respond effectively.

  • Strategic and tactical thinking: Players must manage immediate concerns while bearing long-term goals in mind.

  • Flexibility: Players must remain alert to the possibility that a better plan is possible, or a different plan is necessary.

  • Planning: Players must develop a victory plan and coordinate their actions to fulfill that plan.

  • Memory: Players apply their knowledge and experience to the move selection process.

  • Skill development: Studies by Alfred Binet and others have shown that strong chess players' recall memories are actually no better than average; the difference is intuitive. When the master player's opponent moves, several possible responses immediately come to the master's mind, just like any "woodpusher." The difference is, the master player's brain intuitively delivers better moves and is more skilled at selecting the best of the options that spring to mind, based on pattern recognition.
  • Motivation: Players are motivated learners; they receive immediate real-world feedback on their efforts, and they see improved results as a natural consequence of sustained effort. For some students who struggle with physical sports, classroom skills, or social interaction, mental competition can become an area to excel.

  • Thalamic engagement: In contrast to free forms of play suich as fantasy or imaginative play, a game provides a highly structered, goal-directed format. Each act by one player calls for a specific response from the other player. Both forms are important. Free play emphasizes right-brain thinking, where as most game call for more left-brain activity. Go seems to uniquely activate both hemipsheres . . . but we're getting ahead of ourselves..

Educators and parents are becoming more and more aware of the value of games as a learning tool. To meet the growing demand for ways to integrate games into the classroom, the US chapter of The World Mind Sports Association has embarked on a project with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and The MIT Media Lab to develop an online toolbox that can be integrated into classroom studies to teach Go, chess and other games.

Chess: A Nearly Perfect Meta-Learning Tool

Chess stands alone as a widely recognized learning booster for a wide range of students, enabling them to develop "meta-learning" skills, building a foundation that enables more effective and successful general learning. Credible evidence was compiled decades ago in Ferguson's Chess In Education Research Summary (1995) and more was cited in a 2003 review of the literature by America's Foundation for Chess. Title I funded programs like Chess In The Schools have introduced many thousands of students to chess over the years. The NYC Dept. of Education trains hundreds of classroom teachers to teach chess as part of their standards-based curriculum every year through the Chess-In-The-Schools Teacher Training Institute. In 2012 Europe decided to get into the act, when the European Parliament recently agreed to fund school-based chess programs throughout the European Union, using Garry Kasparov's "Chess In Schools" system.

The chess program at IS 318, a public middle school in Brooklyn, shows what is possible. All sixth graders are required to participate in weekly chess instruction, and can continue their studies if they wish in seventh and eighth grades. As reported in The New York Times, the school team recently won the National High School Championship, showing what a committed learning environment can accomplish. Elizabeth Spiegel, the school's full-time chess coach, says that "the school views chess not as a competitive pressure-cooker but as a way to learn how one's mind works," developing transferable skills that can then be applied to other learning. The IS 318 program is the subject of the documentary Brooklyn Castle.

Go: The Perfect Tool

If chess can serve as such a positive influence, what about Go? Let's look at the unique cognitive, social and developmental benefits of Go in more detail:

  • Simplicity: Go is supremely simple, uncluttered by artificial or arbitrary rules. Everything evolves naturally and elegantly from the central principle of surround and capture, even special cases like ko and seki. Noted go historian William Pinckard called it "a nearly ideal mirror for reflecting the basic processes of mentation."

  • Complexity: The full size board is more than five times as large as a chessboard, (361 intersections vs. 64 squares). leading to an exponential explosion of possibilities. The number of possible games of Go has been estimated at 10 followed by >170 zeroes. By comparison, the number of subatomic particles in the known universe contains fewer than 30 zeroes.
  • Progressive Complexity: Most strategy games begin by setting up the board. Pieces are then captured and removed from the board as the game progresses. Each such capture simplifies the game to some degree. Go games, on the other hand, become increasingly complex, as stones continue to appear all over the board. German-style board games such as Carcassone also start from scratch and build as the game progresses, but few other board games share this characteristic.
  • Scalable: Educators who have discovered how games can aid the learning process speak of "short form" games -- those fit within a classroom period -- and longer forms that are actually more "sticky" and "gobble up time," leading players to immerse themselves in a world that stimulates learning. Go is unique in that it is "scalable" and fits comfortably in both categories. While games on the full size board can take an hour or more, smaller boards are widely available in standard sizes, especially 9x9 and 13x13. A 9x9 game can take as little as ten minutes, so in-class exposure can attract students to clubs and special program where they can delve into the full depths of the game.
  • Wider Scope of Play: Go players may place a stone anywhere at any time (except for suicide in some rule sets). At the start of a chess game, only 20 moves are possible. Most chess games last 50 or 60 moves. By contrast, nearly all Go games last for at least 100 moves -- and at that point, each players still has more than 200 possible next moves to consider at each turn.

  • A Level Playing Field: The natural handicapping system makes it possible to compensate for the difference in strength between nearly any two players. The weaker player simply begins by placing on a board a number of stones equal to the difference in rank.

  • Historical and Cultural Aspects: A student's interest in Go can inspire a wider interest in Asian culture and history. Long-established customs of respect, discipline and sportsmanship, similar to those found in Asian martial arts, bring a certain decorum to the Go community.

  • Seeking Balance, Not Triumph: Chess is a game of all or nothing: Go is a game of balance, embodying the Asian concept of yin/yang . For instance, consider a row of stones. The closer together, the more solid and immune to attack; the farther apart, the more area they can capture or influence. The wise player always seeks balance between aggression and defense, territory and influence. a famous Go proverb says, "Rich men shouldn't fight."

Noted Swedish grandmaster Tiger Hillarp Person , the author of “ Tiger's Modern ,” finds go to be a nice complement to his enjoyment of chess. In the go section of his blog “ Chess at the Bag of Cats,” he writes: “I started out with Go in the beginning of 2011 and, after a rapid rise to about 9kyu, I've been gaining around 4kyu a year since then. I can really recommend chess players to do this for a number of reasons. First, if you are too tactically inclined a player, then by playing Go you will be forced to think about things like ‘structure' and ‘plans'. Secondly, if you work as a coach, reliving the struggle of being a beginner at a difficult game (like Chess – or Go) will definitely improve your understanding of those you are coaching. Thirdly, there are few things that let you appreciate the ‘nature' of what you have learned as a chess player and learning Go will make it obvious that you know stuff that transcends the chess board.”

Recent Go-Related Research

Young Children Develop More Quickly: Korean researcher Baromi Kim divided 64 first graders into two groups. One learned Go, the other didn't. Testing each group before and afterward, she found that the Go-playing group progressed more quickly in several measurable ways.

Go Players Use More of Their Brains: A team of Chinese researchers led by Xiangchuan Chen measured the brain function of Go players in action, then compared their findings to the results of an identical study of chess players. They found that while chess players' brains seemed mostly activated in the left hemisphere, Go players' brain were equally active in both hemispheres.

Learning Go Produces Actual Physical Brain Changes: B. Lee et. al. at the Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, Seoul, Korea compared the brains of Go players and non-players and found player brains to contain more white matter, which coordinates communication among various regions of the brain.

Links to Core Curriculum

Games have a high degree of intrinsic motivation, so when they can promote or strengthen learning and development they are valuable tools.

Math: Links to core curriculum begin with the student's first Go game. Any five-year-old who plays a 9x9 game will need counting skills to figure out who won. Addition skills quickly come into play, especially on the larger board where scores from separate territories must be combined. Later students can use their multiplication skills on the big board. Learning to identify move coordinates strengthens graph reading skills. Higher level math puzzles of interest include: How would one calculate the total number of possible games? How much stronger is the world's strongest player than the world's weakest player? How would one devise an accurate, reliable rating system? How would one determine the correct handicap for an even game?

Language Arts: Go has appeared as a prominent theme in various books and other media. Click here for more information.

Science: After decades of work by computer scientists programs are stronger than ever, but the best are still no match for a top player. Katie Hafner and George Johnson explain why in a way that highlights the limits of computer science and the magnificence of the human brain.

Social Studies: Go is a natural window into Asian culture and history. In China, it became one of the required "Four Arts of a Chinese Scholar." In Japan, the first Shogun created Four Go Houses to compete in the annual Castle Games for the coveted office of Godoroko, or Minister of Go. Hundreds of artworks depict these and other historical and cultural events linked to Go. In modern times, international Go tournaments have promoted international friendship and understanding.

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As with many such activities, classroom use of games brings important factors into play:

Project-Based Learning: When students learn together, organize a league, and pursue other game-related interests, they learn organizational skills, teamwork, follow through and many other important skills.

Motivated Learning: As noted above, students who have become interested in Go are primed to absorb related material in core subject areas. Go As Communication describes how Go can even be used with special populations such as senior citizens and those with developmental delays. (If you are a teacher, get your free copy from the AGF!)

Modeling: Teachers who are new to the game can show students the methods and principles they use to grasp the basics and improve their skills, and have a dialog about the process of learning.

Collaborative Learning: Fair warning to teachers: unless you are already an experienced player, you are unlikely to remain the strongest competitor in your class for long. The learning capacity of the developing mind makes it possible for children to improve very quickly. Think of the gains in self-esteem that can occur when child students surpass their adult teachers.

Go and The "Three Games" -- A Paradigm For Our Time

In his essay Go and the Three Games, William Pinckard noted an interesting relationship among three great games that have stood the test of time -- backgammon, bridge and Go.

Each seems to respond to one of three basic questions of human existence:

-- Man vs. Fate: How should I understand and relate to the universe and the world around me? Backgammon seems to capture the essence of our struggle as hunter-gatherers with forces beyond our control. "The players are matched against each other, but each tries to capture a wave of luck and ride it to victory. The loser curses his misfortune and tries again, but the individual is helpless in the grip of superior forces." Early man avoided contact whenever possible, just as single backgammon pips flee to the bar at any contact, then re-enter from another side.

-- Man vs. Man: How should I understand and relate to my fellow humans? As herding and agrarian societies evolved, and with them the concept of property -- livestock, land, crops, goods, each other -- they inevitably clashed. Empires rose and fell. Armies faced off, each intent on destroying the other. Chess, with opponents locked in a contest where one must die, reflects this dynamic. Pinckard notes that "the pieces, from king down to pawn (peon), give a picture of a hierarchical society with powers strictly defined and limited." This"winner-take-all" essence of chess translates into a highly competitive, even aggressive community of players, as described for instance in Smithsonian Magazine's article The Opponent Must Be Destroyed.

But the modern world is multidimensional. Other countries may be more valuable as trading partners than enemies, or the most practical relations may involve both these themes. Competitive and cooperative imperatives mingle. In the world of Go, players are led naturally to this perspective. Honestly playing one's rank means losing about half of one's games -- and a lifetime of exciting, evenly balanced play. Go players are determined to win, but the meaning is different. The question of who is stronger is often settled by handicap before the game begins. A series of wins will justify a claim to a stronger rank, but an individual game is not so important. Winning by a slim margin is often more satisfying than a crushing defeat.

-- Man vs. Self: Who am I? How do I see myself? The world of Go is the ultimate meritocracy. Rank is earned and proven. The goal is not to win games, but to improve one's skill.

We can find in Go an embodiment of man's central dilemma in the modern world. Chess, with its neatly arrayed forces wielding arbitrarily assigned and limited powers, seems to embody a Cold-War style clash of powers from a bygone era. Go stones, on the other hand, can appear anywhere at any time. They derive their powers from their relationship with other stones. "Whereas chess pieces mark the moves of abstract powers through space, Go pieces record the pure movement of Time. A black is put down, then a white one -- one is meaningless without the other." (Shotwell 2002)

Pinckard concludes, "That we have these three shows that they answer basic needs in the human spirit. People everywhere are preoccupied with social structures, position and status; and everyone capable of reflection must sometimes speculate on his private relationship to fortune and fate. But Go is the one game which turns all preoccupations and speculations back on their source. It says, in effect, that everyone starts out equal . . . And that what happens thereafter is not fate or . . . social position but only the quality of your own mind."

Why Isn't Go More Popular in the West? And What Can be Done?

While Go remains largely unknown in the West, chess, with its obvious basis in Western history, is deeply woven into Western culture. Although several chess variants are widely popular in Asia (shogi, xiangqi, janggi) no Go-like game has ever appeared in the West. In some ineffable way, it seems the Asian mindset was needed to in a sense "discover" Go, which arises naturally from the central premise of "surrounding" like corollaries from an axiom. Why does Go remain so little known in the West, and how can understanding this help us to move toward a sustainable Western Go culture?

Cultural Compatibility: With its all-out struggle for the heart of the opponent, chess seems to echo the categorical, "all-or-nothing" nature of Western thought. Asian thought, in contrast, seems more concerned with the balance of opposing forces (yin and yang). In addition, individual pieces in Go have no meaning, only as part of a group, while chess pieces have arbitrarily assigned powers.

History: Chess-like game are more popular today than Go throughout Asia, and always have been. Throughout most of its history, Go was played mainly by the upper classes. So it seems that chess-like games may have spread because they express a universal theme -- "to-the-death" clash between forces where some are kings and some are pawns. The subtle, abstract essence of Go is harder to grasp.

Flexibility: Ulrich Schadler, in his essay " Some Games Travel Some Don't" for the 2003 International Conference On Baduk, notes that "Games resemble parasites -- they need human beings to survive and spread." (Perhaps the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic.) He suggests that "chess has changed and been adopted to different cultural traditions. . . . Once the idea of naming the pieces differently was established, local variations appeared; the game was transformed according to the regional situation: the Indian minister became a vizier in certain Indian regions and finally a a queen in Europe; the chariot was replaced by a boat in certain Indian regions and finally became a fortification tower in Europe; the English thought that a king and queen might need a bishop more than an elephant, while the Germans preferred a herald." So perhaps the anonymous nature of the stones in Go is a problem.

Are We There Yet?: Chess (usually) has a climactic, clear-cut ending -- checkmate. When the last move of a close Go game is played, in contrast. the winner may not be evident; in fact it may not even be clear that the game is over. Go is ephemeral, actually known throughout the world by several different names. The world community of players is unable to agree on the basic rules -- there are at least six separate rule sets -- and yet everyone knows to how to play. Perhaps that is the beauty of Go -- it only reveals its wonders to the persistent student.

In 1952, The US Chess Federation had fewer than 1200 members. Today (2012) there are more than 80,000 USCF members, including more than 50 grandmasters. Two surges accounted for this growth -- one driven by the Fischer-Spassky rivalry of the 1960's, the other by a drastic expansion of scholastic players. In the early 90's the number of student players went from 50,000 to 80,000 in just a few years, due to a strong focus on Chess in the Schools.

Students who learn Go gain all the benefits of chess and the unique qualities that make Go a "nearly perfect mirror of the processes of mentation," a "way to learn how one's mind works." Plus a deeply satisfying lifetime pastime. A carefully chosen enthusiasm can greatly enrich life. When young people choose their lifelong passions, Go should be among their choices.


About the Author: Dr. Laird holds a Ph.D. in clinical treatment of children and adolescents from the NYU School of Social Work. He has worked with children in clinical settings and schools for more than thirty years. Laird is also an avid lifelong Go enthusiast who plays at about the 3K level.