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Chess serves as support for Argentina’s vulnerable, detained children

Agustín Teglia, a sociologist by profession, learned to play chess as a child, encouraged by his mother. He recalls having a board in the living room where he played with his brother and cousin. Years later, when he started working in literacy programs, he began organizing workshops in vulnerable Buenos Aires neighborhoods and juvenile detention and psychiatric centers for teenagers and adults.

A chess board with black and white boxes and a set of pieces placing a dispute are the tools that Teglia found to face violence and marginality. Using this method, he also integrated children and teenagers from vulnerable areas and others in juvenile criminal institutions.  

Growing up, Teglia heard the prejudice that chess was a game for the smartest and, in many cases, the affluent. However, he discovered that, through practice, the activity could become a pedagogical device capable of fostering group dynamics and integration. He also found that with some simplifications, anyone could start playing on the first day at any age.

“We start by telling the story of the game and the pieces, suspending some more abstract rules, like checking for direct combat where pieces are captured. Then we gradually incorporate more rules to make the game more complex and strategic,” he says.

“When I started working in Villa 21 (a low-income area in Buenos Aires), I had to discard my prejudices. Five-year-old kids got excited when I told them the history of chess and immersed them in the cultural world of the game,” he recalls.

Teglia emphasizes the advantages of chess as “a playful activity that develops active attention.” He mentions working with children diagnosed with attention deficit, highlighting that sometimes it’s not a flaw but a strategy to navigate the world.

Although he doesn’t keep track of the number of participants in his workshops, Teglia estimates that, in the 13 years of his work, there have been several hundred people in groups ranging from 20 to 40. Currently, he is planning classes simultaneously at a psychiatric institution and at the admission and referral center for juvenile penal cases, where he divides the children into levels based on their ages.

To socialize and concentrate

“In 2010, I began organizing workshops in children’s homes and incorporated chess into literacy workshops in Villa 21 as another proposal for artistic expression and play,” he recalls. “This game affects how children relate to knowledge and problem-solving, thus aiding in the learning process.”

One of his students expresses it in his own words: “I like it, and I get hooked because it helps me think.”

The gaming sessions are not oblivious to the clock: “It’s very necessary because it allows working on time management. Each participant has to manage it for moves and, in a broader sense, in organizing the activity,” says Teglia.

ONLINE gaming to learn the rules and memorize the pieces. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

The expert also points out the “socializing” potential of the activity: “It’s a good way to generate a mediator, a common code to form a group. There can be children of different ages and levels, and each one has a role to receive and integrate classmates or teach them rules.”

Teglia says emotions surface during board games, giving examples: a boy hesitated to sacrifice the queen to save the king because he wanted to protect his bonds. “They identify pawns with kids like them and the king and queen with their dad and mom.”

He adds that besides socializing and resolving conflicts, the game encourages participants to learn how to follow rules.

In addition to taking his proposal to vulnerable neighborhoods, Teglia added workshops at the primary school of Club Racing de Avellaneda and in psychiatric institutions for children, teenagers, and adults. “Practice facilitates better organization of thought for people with mental health disorders and allows their subjectivity to emerge,” he says.

SOME workshops also involve teenagers and adults. They serve them to socialize and express conflicts. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

Another implementation of the game is in the juvenile penal area of the Council of the Rights of Children and Adolescents, through which he organizes workshops in closed and semi-closed educational centers. In these spaces, where there is some degree of confinement, the black and white pieces allow children and young people to play out unknown or hidden internal forces and release tensions and conflicts, explains Teglia, paraphrasing concepts from Argentine writer and thinker Ezequiel Martínez Estrada. He gives an example: a boy detained with his mother during a supermarket robbery refused to lose the queen and preferred to lose the king, losing sight of the game’s main objective.

Recycling and building pieces

Workshops don’t require significant infrastructure in public or private institutions. “Materiality is secondary; first, I teach them to experience the rules of the game,” Teglia says.

Sometimes he works with very limited resources but finds alternatives with cardboard and bottle caps to create games that can even be taken home or given as gifts. “You add art and the perspective of recycling, and the game emerges from scratch.”

CHESSBOARDS made of tiles and pieces from soda caps. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

So in meetings in homes and emergency neighborhoods, the game starts with making the board with bottle caps, plastic containers, and pieces of stone or wood that transform into kings, queens, knights, pawns, bishops, and rooks.

“But it’s curious because both children and adults care about materiality. Large and beautiful pieces generate enthusiasm or curiosity in the youngest or people with depression,” he says.

The dream of multiplying workshops

Teglia is convinced that workshops can be multiplied in different institutions and in all provinces of the country: “The possibility of replicating them and generating a cross-cutting proposal at the national level always depends on public policy. There are some established programs like Ajedrecear that promote chess practice and organize tournaments, but they are being defunded. The same goes for public education. However, it would be desirable to incorporate the activity in all possible contexts. I promote it, but it’s increasingly difficult for me to coordinate with institutions that have their problems.”

As an alternative, Teglia gathered his experience and step-by-step guide to set up and sustain a workshop over time in Caballito de Troya, a book by Editorial Marat. The text isn’t a collection of anecdotes or the story of the experience of bringing chess to these environments but a teaching manual for the game.

“I seek to add tools for teachers, for their toolbox, so they have more possibilities for intervention,” the author says.

THE presentation of the book aims to multiply the experience. Teglia (with the microphone) explained the mechanics of the workshops. Image: courtesy of Agustín Teglia

The comments of workshop participants (children and young people) and their parents shared in classes endorse it.

“The best part is making the board and taking it home to play,” says one of the kids. “Since he started playing chess, it not only helped him concentrate but also he started doing better in school. I can’t explain why, but it’s true,” says the father of one participan, while the teacher listens more than satisfied. – Rappler.com

This story was originally published in RED/ACCIÓN (Argentina) and is republished within the Human Journalism Network program, supported by the International Center for Journalists.

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