Walking to learn

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Nothing beats taking a ramble around neighbourhood to truly absorb the sights and sounds, and find out about the history of a place

Last week, at the height of the haze which forced school closures here, I went north to Malacca, Malaysia, with some architecture students to look at old buildings.

In a beautifully crumbling shophouse in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in the historical city centre, I spoke to the National University of Singapore first-year students about my manuscript of architecture-based short stories.

After that, I tagged along as they went on a guided walk conducted by an urban historian and conservation expert, Professor Johannes Widodo, whose wealth of knowledge about the city's architectural heritage is matched by his energy and passion for ghost stories. The eye-opening tour revealed the particular character of the place.

An old shrine, dedicated to the local land deities at what used to be a landing point, now sits within its own landscaped, water-fringed enclosure, by the pool of a luxury resort erected on reclaimed land - a good example of how public space negotiates with private redevelopment. 

FEEDING THE SENSES

When you walk, you can see more, hear more. You can see the scale of the buildings and get a sense of the city.

PROFESSOR JOHANNES WIDODO, urban historian and conservation expert

In Jalan Tokong Besi, known as Harmony Street for its peacefully coexisting places of worship, we explored the cosmic implications of Chinese temple layout, and contemplated the model of sustainability offered by Muslim burial methods under a mango tree in the pagoda-flavoured Masjid Kampung Kling.

We schlepped past the red-painted buildings of the Dutch Square, up the hill to the ruins of St Paul's Church, and ended the tour before the seemingly forgotten green triangular monument that marks the spot where Tunku Abdul Rahman declared Malaysia's independence in 1957.

There were crimes of architecture, too, as told by Prof Widodo: the local outpost of an international cafe chain that squatted by the river, disconnected from the rest of the historical site; the museum devoted to Admiral Cheng Ho which was filled with questionable relics and clumsily executed statuary such as kitschy terracotta warriors (sorry, wrong dynasty). An award-winning project had involved the tearing down of a shophouse to erect a (now-abandoned) yellow plinth-like structure.

By the end of the three-hour walk, I had learnt so much - much more, in fact, than on my last trip to Malacca two decades ago, when I had been pedalled around in a trishaw.

Walking, it seems, made all the difference. On foot, we could carefully imbibe a narrative that had it all: economics, religion, politics and power. Along the way, I would pop into the stores of master craftsmen to start conversations with them, or simply to ogle at an old goldsmith's tools or marvel at the precision of a sign-maker's chisel on wood. I acquired a unique mental map of the city, criss-crossed with an invisible lattice of stories and factoids.

Later, over dinner of fried kang kong and devil's curry, eaten al fresco in a narrow road, Prof Widodo and I talked about how one should walk in order to learn.

For years, the academic had been taking students on field trips, to places such as Malacca and Yogyakarta, to experience the space and connect visually to elements in the built environment.

"In Singapore, you rarely walk," he said, stressing the importance of these study trips, where students could explore freely and sketch what they see. "When you walk, you can see more, hear more. You can see the scale of the buildings and get a sense of the city."

Walking the city - to learn or otherwise - dates back at least to the 16th century, when the French term flaneur, meaning "stroller", first gained currency. The figure of the flaneur crystallised in 19th-century France, when writers such as Honore de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire began celebrating in prose the romantic gentleman wanderer exploring the rich variety of life on Paris' boulevards.

Soon, the flaneur became a kind of urban spectator, a roving intellectual and a collector of scenes and moments glimpsed to the tap-tap of a jaunty cane.

NAVIGATOR AND DISCOVERER

In recent years, the flaneur has been back in vogue in education.

British company E3 Trails creates educational walking trails for students, which combine sightseeing with team-based competitive tasks and activities across the location. Among its offerings: a Brighton seaside adventure and a Bath Roman adventure, adventure trails for European cities, such as Barcelona and Berlin, as well as bespoke trails.

On the company's website, co-founder John Adamson recounted how kids on such trails would listen carefully to the recorded audio clues, "hanging onto every word, analysing for hidden meanings", because it affected what they did next, enabling teachers to reach out to different types of learners.

Meanwhile, Project Zero, a research centre at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has created the Out of Eden Learn online learning platform.

The project uses Pulitzer- winning journalist Paul Salopek's ongoing, seven-year 33,800km Out Of Eden Walk that traces human migration from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego as a starting point.

School-aged children, even those who are home-schooled, can participate at no charge, forming "walking parties" which follow Salopek's progress in his journey, and complete a curriculum that encourages slowing down to observe the world.

Through activities such as creating neighbourhood maps and documenting everyday life on video, students can learn about identity and how they connect with the larger human story.

In Singapore, learning journeys are increasingly common. My nine-year-old son's school takes pupils out once or twice a year on well-planned neighbourhood walks, encompassing a nearby nursing home, mosque and community centre. Sometimes, he surprises me with how much he knows about the estate we live in (we live a stone's throw away from his school and he walks there) and beyond.

Sometimes, walking itself is the point. All too often, kids here are chauffeured from point A to B, missing out on the chance for this slow-burn discovery of the world for themselves.

A 2012 Danish study of 20,000 children aged five to 19 concluded that those who cycled or walked to school performed measurably better in tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles.

Movement, apparently, improves cognitive development. Perhaps, the act of navigating or the non-verbal information sensed along one's route does something to jog and activate the brain.

And with this month designated International Walk To School Month, with Oct 7 as Walk To School Day, those who live near enough to their schools may well find the impetus to hoof it instead.

My Malacca trip convinced me that I should walk more with my two sons, the younger of whom is six. I plan to take them down Serangoon Road and Jalan Besar to photograph the old shop signs carved into the facades of shophouses, before urban redevelopment destroys them.

Haze, haze, go away - we have lots of strolling we want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'Walking to learn'. Print Edition | Subscribe