By Zachary Fagenson
FORT LAUDERDALE Fla. (Reuters) - Leaning over chess boards in the middle of classes, seven- and eight-year-olds in one of Florida's largest school districts furrow their brows as they plot moves toward a checkmate.
It isn't just play. The chess games are part of a weekly lesson given to all 34,000 second- and third-graders in Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-biggest district in the nation, in one of the largest such curriculum experiments in the country.
"Chess is the means to an end," said Mark Strauss, Broward's director of school performance and accountability, explaining that it teaches analytical skills disguised as a game.
"To a child, learning is not work," he added. "The act of sitting and filling in a bubble sheet is work."
The initiative builds on growing numbers of school-age children playing chess in the United States. Along with Florida, thousands of students in New York City and Chicago are learning chess in school, also taught in major districts in Texas, Michigan and Washington state, among others.
From pre-school through college, scholastic memberships in the United States Chess Federation have increased for the past two years, officials say. Players under the age of 20 make up about 60 percent of the leading national chess organization.
"The more kids that are playing, the more people take notice," said Marley Kaplan, president and chief executive of Chess in the Schools in New York City, whose program has reached a half-million children in high-poverty schools since 1986.
What sets Broward County apart was its decision that "this is not just good for a few kids, this is good for all kids," said Wendi Fischer, executive director of America's Foundation for Chess, which created the video-driven lessons, called First Move, used in Broward and other districts.
After three schools in Sunrise, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, piloted the program last year, Broward officials asked others if they wanted to join. Within a day, 100 principals volunteered.
At Discovery Elementary, a pilot school, Principal Angela Fulton said families came together around the chessboards sent home with students. In a thank-you note, one child said chess allowed him to spend more time with his father.
On Friday, the mostly minority school, where few students had previously played, began its second year of chess lessons when teacher Justine Maver showed a video on a smart board.
The Chess Lady, as the program's virtual instructor is called, began a lesson blending geography and chess themes.
"I was skeptical of it in the beginning," said Maver, a third-grade teacher. "But you can put (chess) with anything, math, science - it really works."
When game boards came out, the students played intensely.
"You have to think ahead and really focus," said Jaden Meneses, 7. "It is a little bit challenging, but I like to learn new things so I can get smarter and smarter."
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Reporting by Letitia Stein and Zachary Fagenson; Editing by Ken Wills)