The world is a classroom

There is no better education than travel for children and adults alike

The salarymen are toasting one another noisily in the back alley fried chicken joints of Euljiro-sam-ga in Seoul. As the night deepens and the sound of drunken laughter drifts up to our hotel room, my 10-year-old son Julian is busy checking things on a laptop and jotting notes on the bedside memo pad.

His task? As important as any business deal: to plan his own itinerary, plotting subway routes and exits, and confirming opening times. As I told him: "It's your holiday, so you get to decide what you want to do."

We are in Seoul for three days, after the Supportive Spouse and our two sons visited me for five days at the Toji Cultural Foundation in Wonju at the tail-end of my three-month writing residency.

I had been in Seoul a couple of times before, but it is the boys' first visit. While stressing out over what to do in the South Korean capital one night, I decide to simply hand the reins to the boys. They are old enough to have a say in what they want out of a family holiday.

In the past couple of years, "worldschooling" has become a popular buzzword.

A twist on "home-schooling", it is a niche movement that involves parents unplugging from the corporate and social rat-race, taking their kids out of conventional schools and globe-trotting.

The idea is to turn the world into a borderless, wall-less classroom.

Parents, for example, would teach their toddlers about the life cycle by examining bear poop and berries while out walking in some remote land; live in a caravan and encourage their kids to learn through outdoor play; or learn about diverse cultures by interacting with local villagers.

While I am not ready to take the worldschooling route any time soon - my husband's business still needs him to be in Singapore, I believe that there is no better education than travel for children and adults alike.

Seeing and experiencing another country, and navigating different environments, challenge you in many ways and stretch the mind in directions that would not be possible at home.

And the earlier you realise that your home is not the centre of the earth, and that your socio-cultural position is not the only one to take, the more open-minded and adaptable you are likely to be.

There is a difference between travelling and just taking a packaged vacation, with its tour guides and chauffeurs.

It involves lots of planning and making choices every step of the way. By the time I am out from my shower, Julian has mapped out a day at two free museums: the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in the Jongno area, and the War Memorial of Korea in Itaewon.

For their day out in the city, the two brothers guide their father and me around. They take turns to hold the subway map and confirm that we are on the right platform.

More than book learning or language skills, kindness from strangers helps to open the boys' eyes to the graciousness and warmth that exist beyond their shores. They learn how to be good guests in other people's homes and respectful of their customs.

The kid who gets out of bed first each day also gets a budget of 10,000 won (S$11.75) to buy a souvenir - a huge motivator to get ready faster, as well as learn about exchange rates.

At the museum of Korean contemporary history, we get to simulate voting in a special exhibition to tie in with South Korea's elections, held earlier this year. And, at the war memorial, the kids sit rapt in front of epic videos dramatising pre-Joseon dynasty battles in the early military history exhibition rooms. I, for one, leave feeling that I've learnt much more about Asian history.

Younger brother Lucien, 61/2, gets to pick breakfast and lunch venues. When he complains of hunger pangs, while we're walking from the hotel to the subway station, he takes the lead and heads down the road, stopping in front of a nondescript eatery specialising in dumplings.

The meat-and-kimchi dumplings turn out to be delicious, as does the omelette fried rice we order, and the purple-eyeshadowed ajumma (local generic term for married women, akin to "auntie") owner is sweet to the kids.

We congratulate Lucien on stumbling upon a cheap and good find, and he beams. He does pick KFC and Dunkin' Donuts for snacks, but at pleasant enough City Hall outlets, with views of a bustling junction, and we soak up the vibe.

Everywhere they go, the kids catch the eye of the elderly Seoul natives, who strike up a conversation with them.

One white-haired man on the subway train remarks that "Singapore is a very good country", when we tell him where we're from, and muses that "Korea is too small" when I compliment him on his home country. In one of the ubiquitous Korean fried chicken houses near our hotel, another ajumma gives Lucien free helpings of popcorn.

At Toji, previously, they had become fast friends with my fellow residents. Lucien formed a fast bond with young poet Sun You Mi, holding hands with her on rural walks and playing badminton with her in the fields.

More than book learning or language skills, this kindness from strangers helps to open the boys' eyes to the graciousness and warmth that exist beyond their shores. They learn how to be good guests in other people's homes and respectful of their customs.

Travelling has inspired my children to try new things.

Julian now wants to study Korean when he gets back to Singapore, and we will find a course together. Travelling has also led us all to discover resources within ourselves and one another.

Lucien trudges through the streets with minimal complaints, on his skinny little legs - even if we have to encourage him and prop him up on the last stretch back to the hotel at the end of the day.

When Lucien weeps on the way to Lotte World amusement park because he misses his new best friend You Mi, we respect his emotions and help him deal with them.

And when a seashell I carried painstakingly from Jeju is accidentally broken, Lucien comforts me with hugs and Julian provides the parental voice of reason. "It can't be helped, so don't be sad and enjoy the rest of our time here, okay?" says my firstborn.

Some parents send their children for extra lessons during the school holidays, for reasons that best suit their families.

I am looking forward to the September holidays, though, for the next journey - no matter how short or close to home - I will take with mine.

•Clara Chow is a writer and the co-founder of art and literary journal

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'The world is a classroom'. Print Edition | Subscribe