Marisa van der Merwe, Women of the Year 2012

8/5/2012 – This award, introduced in 1996, pays tribute to the most exceptional and achieving women in the country, and presents them as role models to the rest of South Africa. Among this year's winners we spotted the co-founder of the South African Moves for Life program and developer of MiniChess, an education-through-chess program (don't miss the video!). Congratulations Marisa!

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Chess program wins prestigious educational award

South African women have long been at the forefront of the struggle for political and social equality in our country. They have worked passionately over many years for the upliftment and increased prosperity of their families and communities. In recognition and celebration of this, Shoprite Checkers, one of the largest retail chain stores in Southern Africa, decided in 1996 to introduce the Woman of the Year Award for South Africa.

The Award was the first major initiative for National Woman's Day after Government decided to honour women every year on the anniversary of the biggest mass-gathering of women in South Africa on 9 August 1956. On this day 20,000 women marched in silence to protest the carrying of identification passes.


The award winners: Nyeleti Mushwana (Socio-Economic Business Developers Award),
Margi Biggs (Good Neighbours Against Crime) Shéri Brynard (Youth Mover Award);
Tina Botha (Health Care-Givers) Marisa van der Merwe (Educators Category).

Since its inception the Award identified and paid tribute to the country's unsung heroes, and presented them as role models to the rest of South Africa. The Award also brought into focus the many issues that women grapple with; issues that often make life a daily struggle. It paid tribute to the most exceptional and achieving women in the country who had not only achieved success in their own respective fields but who had made a tangible difference in communities and society as a whole.

Over the past sixteen years the Award grew to enjoy national status as the pre-eminent award for women. The tremendous interest shown by South Africans in the Award, the growth in the number and quality of nominations, as well as the support by prominent South Africans for the objectives of the Award, attested to the growth in its stature.

On Saturday 21 July 2012, Marisa van der Merwe, co-founder of the South African Moves for Life program and developer of MiniChess, an education-through-chess program, was chosen as the winner in the Education category - for her work and contribution to South African communities through these programs.

This is a significant achievement for both Marisa and Moves for Life and Chess, especially when the following are taken into consideration:

  • There were more than 1400 entrants for this category.

  • The judging panel consisted of highly acclaimed educationalists with little to no interest in chess. The judging took place from an educationalists point of view and the criteria were totally unrelated to chess as a sport.

  • Education in South Africa is a much debated topic as the investment made by the government has one of the lowest ratios of return in the world. The academic performance of children, or rather the lack thereof, is a much written and reported topic. Educationalists, politicians and business leaders are all searching for viable solutions to the problem. As a result all potential solutions are put through rigorous scrutiny.

Background

Marisa is an accomplished chess coach and teacher. She manages the Chess Academy at Waterkloof High School, one of the best academic public schools in South Africa. During the 1990's she started teaching individual and small groups of young children how to play chess. It was not long before she was approached by schools to teach classes how to play. She soon realised that teaching large classes of 25 and more children is a totally different challenge than teaching individual children and small groups. The seed for the development of a unique program, where chess is used primarily as an educational tool, was sown.

MiniChess was developed in South African classrooms in collaboration with teachers from many different schools. MiniChess focusses foremost on the development of the fundamental cognitive aspects of a child’s capacity to understand basic maths, science and life skill concepts. Lessons and exercises are structured to establish essential pre-knowledge and to develop the child's capacity to use his memory, imagination and ability to visualise. Educationalists agree that memory, imagination and visualization are essential building blocks for the young child's ability to learn. Emphasis is placed on making the learning experience fun and enjoyable for the child.


The basic building blocks for developing learing capacity

In 2009 Marisa joined forces with other chess enthusiasts and businessmen to launch Moves for Life, an initiative to take the benefit of chess-based education to less privileged communities in South Africa. Moves for Life consist of two sub-programs, MiniChess and MasterMoves. MiniChess caters for children younger than nine years old while MasterMoves caters for children of nine years and older. Moves for Life serves as the fund raising, governance and roll-out structure for these programs.


Colouring and counting – having fun while learning MiniChess

Feedback from school principals and participating teachers have been overwhelmingly positive. The first visible impact on the children is the improved discipline in classes. This is followed by improved self-confidence, longer concentration spans and better class participation. Better academic performance is also evident.

Today MiniChess is a complete package that fits 100% with the needs of the classroom of the 21st century. More than 400 teachers have already attended the well-structured MiniChess training workshops and are giving the classes to young learners. Teachers receive guide files with well-defined lesson plans, including assessment standards, which stretch a full academic year. Learners are provided with workbooks that contain exercises linked to all lessons. The number of learners that benefit from this program on a weekly basis exceeds 16000 countrywide and the number is growing. These children are representative of the full South African spectrum of cultures and demographic diversity. Prominent primary schools in major cities as well as small rural schools in some of the most remote areas of South Africa participate with success in the program.

On his visit to South Africa in 2011, GM Garry Kasparov (above) visited a number of schools that is participating in the Moves for Life program. He witnessed first-hand how MiniChess is presented in classes. GM Kasparov described what he saw as "the most scientific" program that relates chess directly to education. In 2012 the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa was formed as a joint venture between Moves for Life and GM Kasparov and there are plans to take the MiniChess program beyond the borders of South Africa.

Greatest Challenge

“Our greatest challenge since the inception of Moves for Life in 2010 has been to convince educators and chess players that our program is first and foremost an educational program”, says Marisa. She explains that chess is used as a tool and many of the technical aspects of the game are used creatively to exercise the child's cognitive ability and to teach fundamental maths, science and life skill concepts. This approach leads to fove distinctive outcomes that are indicative of the uniqueness of this program.

  • The majority of participating children, up to 100% in some cases, benefit from the chess based teaching.

  • Young children are much better equipped to cope with learning and to perform academically at school.

  • A thorough foundation is laid for the young child to understand fundamental principles in the playing of chess. The child can also play chess as a natural consequence of participating in the program.

  • The teachers receive a teaching tool that improves their ability to teach the children and therefore increases in-class productivity.

  • The program is structured in such a way that teachers do not need any chess knowledge to present the material to the children. Through the presentation the teacher is however learning how to play and teach the game. The number of teachers who can teach chess at a school now increases and in many cases new chess enthusiasts are born.


Must-watch video: here you can see how MiniChess impacts on the school readiness of pre-schoolers

Educationalists all over the world are currently looking for methods to include play into the education system, this trend is called gamification. It is an established fact that “play” is the natural process of learning for young children. The MiniChes program fits perfectly into this trend and it can even be said that it is leading the way in many respects.

It starts with adapting the fundamentals of chess to innovative pre-learning exercises and leads naturally to the establishment of a solid chess playing foundation. For example:

  • The chessboard is used as a counting frame and number grid to present numbers concretely, thereby making the abstract nature of maths visible and understandable for the young child.

  • MiniChess games are used to develop spatial concepts, shape recognition, reasoning and gestalt, (the foundation for problem solving) as well as fine motor skills.

Kgaugelo Mosetlhe, 2010 South African Champion and 2011 All African Games silver medalist says: “When I first registered to do the MiniChess program, I had my doubts as I was a former South African chess champion, but in just 30 minutes of the start of the program I was in complete amazement! I knew right there and then that any child who came in contact with this program will never be the same again. This program is not just about chess, it’s a life changer! Very well thought out, and easy to understand for everyone. I would deeply like to thank Marisa for this amazing world impacting program, she is truly is South African Super Grandmaster!"

Cees Meiboom, a 2200 player and Coach of various National Youth Chess Champions has recently undergone MiniChess training and now teaches young children the MiniChess way. Cees remarks: “I never thought I would get this excited about a Chess Program for 5-8 year olds. MiniChess is unique in that it teaches kids fundamentals in maths, school readiness and some general life skills utilising chess as the vehicle. It is such a fun filled course and kids absolutely love it. MiniChess makes it easy to grasp abstract concepts to just about everyone including impaired children.”


A group of children and teachers from a school in Nkandla, a famous village in rural KwaZulu Natal.
Six schools in Nkandla are participating in the program, with roughly 800 children benefitting from MiniChess.

Leading the Way

Many public and corporate leaders who played chess as a child will acknowledge that chess played a major role in their education and later success. The challenge for chess is to find a way to make this advantage accessible to all youngsters and not only to the "clever few" that are fortunate enough to "get it" at a young age.

Moves for Life with the incorporation of Marisa van der Merwe's MiniChess program is meeting this challenge head on and leading the way in linking chess with education. By winning the Shoprite Checkers Woman of the year award, Marisa and MiniChess have received a credible and important recognition for the ground breaking work done in the field of education. This has come about because she developed innovative chess-based methods to teach children fundamental concepts at an age where they can benefit from it the most.

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