Marisa van de Merwe

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa,
Fellow Since 2015


This profile was prepared when Marisa van de Merwe was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.
The New Idea
Marisa’s model, MiniChess, is not a program aimed at teaching children how to play chess as a profession, but rather a means of enhancing learning development for children between the ages from 5 to 9 years. The program targets learners from all communities, including less privileged and under-resourced schools in township and rural communities, who are victims of the dysfunctional Early Childhood Development (ECD) education system that fails to prepare them for both successful and advanced learning in older classes and life in the 21st century.
Marisa developed the program based on the concepts of chess-thinking skills. She broke these concepts down into structured learner activities, lesson plans and teacher guides to come up with a curriculum that enhances holistic learning development for learners aged 5-9 years in the first 4 grades of the foundation phase of education (grade R to 3). The program is divided into 4 progressive levels with specific age related activities to expose the child to concrete learning through story-telling, role playing, games, individual and group activities and other stimulating exercises.
Moving from concrete to abstract, the program transposes the chess related concepts into education outcomes such as mathematics, numeracy, language skills, life skills, etc. aligned with the learners’ age and grade. For example, a 1st grade lesson could start with a story of chess with relevant story-telling and role playing activities that are specifically tailored to enhance learners’ confidence, presentation skills and language formulation; a 3rd grade lesson activity could introduce mathematics, algebraic and geometric concepts by assigning values to different chess pieces and patterns on the chess board to enhance problem solving and other program activities linked to life skills such as thinking skills, motivation, respect, and emotional intelligence.
The idea is to use all learning styles (visual, auditory, verbal, physical/kinetic, logical, social, and solitary) to ensure personalized learning for all children. The program does not substitute the normal school curriculum but rather compliments it by exposing the learners to an alternative learning tool (1 to 2 hours per week) that successfully corrects all the ECD fallout areas.
Another crucial arm of the model is teacher development. All teachers in the program undergo 3 levels of training (16 total training hours per level) with certification at each level as qualified MiniChess coaches. The certificates are accredited by the Chess Association of South Africa (CHESSA), Skills Education Training Authority (SETA), South Africa professional council for Educators (SACE) and currently Marisa is in the process of obtaining certification from the Constructive Training Authority of South Africa. Once qualified at level 3, the teachers themselves qualify to become trainers as a way of expanding human capacity under the program.
MiniChess works with multiple-stakeholders to form a funding framework that enables delivery of the program in under-resourced communities. Marisa has developed partnerships with strategic funding organizations such as The Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa, TsogoSun ‘Moves for Life’ Children of the Dawn, The Giving Circle Africa and others. These relationships enable her to reach out to as many communities with the program as possible. However, to develop a self-sustaining scale out strategy, Marisa has created an enterprise development structure for dedicated community members (through community MiniChess franchises) targeting learners from well-resourced government, independent and private schools where there is a growing demand for MiniChess classes to prepare young minds for 21st Century challenges. The franchise is sold to community members who are interested and willing to run the program as their own small business to create employment and help sustain quality operations of MiniChess the parent company.
MiniChess is currently working with 300 schools in all 9 provinces of South Africa, reaching out to more than 57,000 learners a week. The franchise model has 34 franchisees in South Africa alone, with planned roll-out to other 16 African countries within the next 2 years in both sponsored and franchised roll-out models. Outside South Africa, MiniChess has already scaled out to Lesotho, Rwanda, Uganda and Madagascar with plans to roll-out to 10 more countries in the region through the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa.
MiniChess is piloting the program in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Portugal Mexico and Canada as part of scaling out to other countries outside Africa. Furthermore, the current minister of basic education as well as provincial education departments in South Africa has expressed interest to explore possibilities of working with MiniChess to incorporate the program into the education curriculum of the foundation phase in South Africa.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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