Go is becoming a phenomenon in American schools. Scientists suggest that it improves children’s intellectual development and “executive function,” while pedagogues say it reduces violence and frustration. But it also offers something even more valuable than that.
In France, the city of Strasbourg became a pioneer in 2008 with a training program at three schools. The program not only remains in operation today, but has also generated a vibrant local school league. Teachers tell how the practice of the game has improved children’s behavior, reducing the bickering among them, and helping them gain concentration.
But it is in the United States where Go school programs are now succeeding, driven by USGO and the evidence that links the practice of the game in high school to better results in University admission tests. Moreover, thanks to the support of the American Go Foundation an American Little League has come up, as well as a North American championship with Mexican, American, and Canadian children that thrives on the growing number of school teams.
What did French and American schools see in Go?
The most famous Chinese legend that explains the birth of the game attributes its creation to the mythical Emperor Yao (2100 BCE). The emperor wanted to name his eldest son, Danju, heir, but he was disorganized, had difficulty carrying things through to the end, and according to many stories, very little capacity to endure frustration. So the king devised a game that would allow his son to develop a capacity for purpose, the ability to concentrate, and serenity in life.
This is just a legend, but it is surely interesting that the myth presents the game as an educational intervention. Because the truth is that scientific studies show something very similar. Neuroscience tells us about the brain’s executive function, specifically in charge of providing us with the capacity for concentration, calculation, for developing purpose and a long-term perspective. The good news is that this function can be developed through exercise, and that evidence shows that it reduces frustration and violence by increasing the capacity for self-control in children.
What neuroscience tells us
What would the best exercise be for achieving this? Of course, chess is very successful in MRI brain studies. But when in 2003 the same neurologists studied the effects of Go, they reached a surprising conclusion: it not only mobilized more brain areas, but it also “lateralized” more and differently than chess. To say it bluntly, playing Go helps interconnect the various functions of our brain. Even more interesting were the results of a landmark study conducted in 2013 by Korean neurologists comparing the brain activity of players undergoing professional training with that of amateurs. According to this study, playing Go on a regular basis “rewires” our brain, allowing greater integration of various functions, improving not only the executive function but also “intuitive thinking,” that is, the automatic recognition of patterns in new situations.
In light of this, in 2011, a protocol was created in Japan for studying the impact of the inclusion of Go as an extracurricular activity on children’s executive function, under the hypothesis that it would improve “emotional and behavioral control.” The practical results seem to support this idea. So far, the results of empirical studies tell us that Go improves cognitive function, and brain activity in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A moving story
And the inclusion of Go in Japanese schools has a history and a name: Yasuda Yasutoshi. Yasutoshi was a professional Go player. He reached the ninth dan, the highest level, in 1998. In early 1993 he was moved by a story: a child died at his school’s gym choked by a rope “while playing.” Yasuda blamed bullying: “There is something terribly wrong in Japan,” he thought. And he felt helpless.
He shared his anger with his friends, most of them professional players like him, members of a generation which was then facing the sweeping “new style” of Korean baduk, with its televised games and its emphasis on speed.
At one point I became obsessed with doing something about the social problem – bullying – beyond simply popularizing Go.
And Yasuda started volunteering to teach “atari Go,” a simplified version of the game, in kindergartens. The magic of the union between play and a minimum of ritual – the greetings before a match, thanking the opponent upon finishing- started to bear fruit almost immediately. Teachers observed that children extended their circle of relationships. More kids played with other kids beyond the gameboard. Their ability to concentrate increased. Against all odds, children four to six years old were able to sustain attention for more than an hour.
A Go match never follows the same pattern as any other. So children develop the ability to concentrate while trying to anticipate the opponent’s moves. It seems that this type of activity had not hitherto existed in early childhood education.
Given the results, the program quickly spread through primary schools in the region. Yasuda visited them, giving a sample class for teachers. Within a year, the experience was already relatively well known in the educational world and Yasuda received new invitations regularly. Then came the first special schools. First, for children with mental disabilities, and later a center for deaf children.
And new “miracles” emerged: children who exhibited violent behavior and tended to isolate themselves discovered a way of relating through symbolic communication. A traditional way of referring to the game in Japanese literally means “speaking with your hands.” Children who showed no expression smiled for the first time in front of their peers and tutors.
On my third visit to Himawari-no-sato, Tsuru – a child with a mental disability, usually withdrawn, inexpressive and prone to violent reactions- was playing with another child while I did the same. Then I realized Tsuru was trying to ask me something by looking at me straight in the eyes. At that time he had already become a good player, by far the best player in the center. When I looked at the board, it was his turn to move. He could capture the opponent’s stones if he wanted. He sent me a silent message with his eyes: “Can I eat these stones?” I didn’t say anything but I indicated a “yes” with my eyes and he proceeded to capture them. We repeated the same thing three times. The fourth time Tsuru didn’t capture the stones, even knowing he could. Instead, he put a stone where his opponent could capture it. The opponent captured a stone for the first time and ran around the room with joy. Seeing the joy of his opponent, Tusru smiled as well. His face showed that he was happy.
The program later expanded to day centers and nursing homes. And they began to organize play dates between primary school children and children in special schools, between children and adults, between parents and children, between elders from different centers… Yasuda’s project was beginning to build intergenerational communcation channels and spaces that had been swept away by economic development. “By playing Go with elders at the day center,” says the director of a primary school, “children have learned to develop kindness and care for others. Each seems more independent and self-confident than before.”
Soon, more than 10,000 children and adults participated regularly in the project initiated by Yasuda and his friends. And the experience was later extended to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland… and the US, where the American Go Foundation gives Yasuda’s book to teachers who request it and provides additional educational materials to schools in the belief that teaching Go contributes child development.
Today, Yasuda’s work even serves as a basis for the work of pedagogues with minority children at risk of exclusion in the US, and continues to spread, even without an NGO supporting it, through Asia, Africa, and Europe, exclusively through the work of volunteers offering demonstration lessons to teachers, educators, and cultural promoters worldwide. The simple method he developed for approaching children today is much more than a social project.
What does Go contribute?
As we noted when we tried to understand why so many tech entrepreneurs were big fans of Go,
this ability to withstand frustration, to determine a purpose, sustain it over time and adapt to circumstances to execute it, is what determines the likelihood of success of everyone who wants to turn an idea into a project. And that is exactly what starts when you put your first stone on the board.
That is, in a long game where every move completely transforms the future course of events, children learn something else: responsibility. As we mentioned when we talked about the relationship between Go and language, Takeo Kajiwara (1923-2009), a great professional player who focused his career precisely on “finding the truth among the stones,” wrote about this idea:
Each time you place a stone on the board you are showing something of yourself. It’s not just a piece of slate, shell, or plastic. You have committed to that rock your feelings, your individuality, your power, and once you’ve played there is no way back. Each stone carries a heavy responsibility on your behalf.
Surely most Go players would agree that one of the most fascinating aspects of the game is precisely that combination of challenge and fun with the practice of a well-understood responsibility. The other player is for each “a fact of nature,” someone with whom we play and of whom we may learn, but who can’t be blamed for what we do wrong or for our defeats.
Regardless of how much it physically improves our brain, how much it contributes to building our determination and intuition, Go teaches us how to face an unpredictable world from a position of serenity, to understand the opponent as someone that far from ruining our chances, the better they are, the more they will help us improve our game; Go is also a world in which we understand our gestures as meaningful decisions, as words we say to each other. And all that means something more important than a mental workout. For generations burdened with anguish in the race for results, Go becomes a tool for something completely different: maturing and learning to develop serenity by practicing a fine art.