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How Chess Can Reconnect a Community

Before air-conditioning, the Internet and 24/7 TV, sitting outside and playing chess (or checkers) was a popular pastime. A community in Georgia is making outdoor board games a pastime again

Two men play checkers on an outdoor game table in Macon, Georgia

Photo by Julio S. Gonzales for AARP

“Chess allows people to open their minds,” says Antonio Lewis-Ross, president of South Macon Arts Revitalization Technology. Outdoor game tables “bring people together and gives them something to do other than just hanging around.” (See more photos, and a video link, below.)

There’s not a lot for a young or much older person to do in the South Macon area of Macon, Georgia. There aren’t many places to go within the neighborhood. The closest park or recreational center is more than five miles away.

South Macon Arts Revitalization Technology (SMART) was created in 2015 to “enhance the community by redefining the culture of an area that is marginalized and seemingly forgotten.” The all-volunteer, grant-funded effort uses an “asset based” community development approach to its work, meaning it builds on the talents, resources and interests that already exist within the community.

Recognizing that years ago — before 24/7 television, air-conditioning and smartphones — sitting outside and talking over a game of chess or checkers was a popular pastime, SMART used funds from a 2017 AARP Community Challenge grant to purchase outdoor checkerboard tables and two oversized Connect Four games.

“Chess, checkers and Connect Four are games that require critical thinking, patience and skill,” explains Frankie Lewis, secretary of SMART, noting that many older people in the neighborhood are accomplished chess and checkers players. “We want to make sure their skills don’t get lost due to the lack of activity, and we want the elders in our community to share their knowledge with people here of all ages, but especially our youth.”

At the November 2017 ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the game installations, people of all ages began to play. (See a video and the slideshow, below, for scenes from opening day and spring 2018.)

A crew of neighborhood residents serve as volunteer game instructors. "We're noticing that as the teachers assist the children ages 5 through 16 with learning the games of chess and checkers, the students who have short attention spans are learning how to focus more," observes Lewis. "It's interesting to see how the very young children are showing interest."

  • This house will become a community center for a neighborhood in South Macon, Georgia
    Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

    Location, Location, Location

    This church-donated house and yard on Lymore Avenue in Macon, Georgia, is evolving into a community center and neighborhood park. In addition to the already-installed checkerboard game tables, there are plans for a fenced playground and basketball court with lighting so the space can be used at night.

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  • Two young women play checkers at an outdoor game table in Macon, Georgia
    Photo by Julio S. Gonzales for AARP

    Opening Day

    When the checkerboard game tables were unveiled on November 2, 2017, people of all ages showed up to play.

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  • Children and adults play chess outdoors in Macon, Georgia
    Photo courtesy South Macon Arts Revitalization Technology

    Teachers and Students of All Ages

    An all-volunteer team of adults serve as SMART's official chess instructors, and skilled young people chip in to help as well.

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  • Two young boys stand next to a giant Connect4 game
    Photo by Julio S. Gonzales for AARP

    Small Children, Big Game

    The park's oversized Connect Four game is a handy option for children who don't want to sit at a table and concentrate on playing checkers or chess.

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South Macon Arts Revitalization Technology (SMART)  was a recipient of a 2017 AARP Community Challenge grant. This article was adapted from the "Create Thriving, Productive Communities" chapter of Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Ideas From America’s Local Leaders. Download or order your free copy.

Page published August 2018

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