Please read our student and staff community guidance on COVID-19
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

One Word Walks

Amy Clarke

"The path of a runner often diverges from that of a walker, because, though both may be headed to the same place, they do so with differing priorities. A New Zealand sheep farmer named William Herbert Guthrie-Smith once observed that horse trails in open country will gradually straighten out. However, he noticed that this only took place in areas where the horses were allowed to trot, canter, or gallop. At a slow walk, the horses gladly followed each turn on a sinuous trail, minimizing their work by bending with the contours of the topography. When they sped up, they began to cut the inside corners off the curves, straightening them. If the horses had been allowed to run “at racing speed,” Guthrie-Smith believed they would “in time rule out paths almost perfectly straight.”

The lesson to be found here is not just that the trail of a galloping horse streamlines. It is that both the fast horse and the slow one seek the path of least resistance. When aims differ, trails do too."

- Robert Moor, On Trails

Brief overview: what play and being playful can achieve in this context

A key aim of The Dark Would was to provide transformative learning experiences by asking its participants to challenge, reimagine and recreate the world around them and this playful activity invites just that. Whether we are walking through foreign or familiar landscapes, there are things that will hold meaning for us - which capture our attention - and there are others which will be lost. Expectations of the kind of experiences and information that our surroundings hold for us can be stubbornly ingrained and with limited time or a lack of permission it's often tempting to focus on what is practical and efficient. Why tread a new path when you’ve already determined the ‘best’ route?

The pace of our steps, how likely we are to stop, reflect or marvel at small details, the frequency of our twists and turns: how might these things change depending on external factors like the amount of time we’re permitted or whether we are travelling through an internal or external, natural or urban and familiar or foreign environment? With a single word as their guide, participants engaged in this activity are asked to think independently, playfully and creatively about the way that they encounter the world. They are offered a broadly interpretable word to inspire their choices and to support them in forging a new path.

One word walks can help participants to develop a greater understanding of the way that they normally choose to engage with a space and how this might be different. The intention of this exercise is not to suggest that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to encounter the world but rather to encourage a greater awareness of how the external landscapes through which we travel can affect the internal landscapes of our mind, and vice-versa.


The facilitator will need to put together a list of keywords for participants to choose from at random. These words must be open enough that participants are free to play and to think creatively and critically when choosing their route. A start and end time will be set by the facilitator and participants will be asked to use only their word and their instincts as a guide, whilst taking a walk through the surrounding area. The length and location of the walk can vary and is to be set by the facilitator. When structuring the session it is important to consider how the length and location of the walk might impact the outcomes. Will participants respond differently if the environment is familiar or foreign to them? How might their experience differ in urban or natural spaces? What impact might the weather, seasons or time of day have? We imagine that participants engaging in this activity will do so solo but you may wish to experiment with pairs or group work too.

Role of participants

Here the main challenge for the facilitator is in the careful selection of the words offered to participants. Words should be suitably broad so that they are able to subjectively interpret them and direct their own path. A list of suggestions can found in the resources section below however if you are using this as a teaching activity you may wish to come up with words of your own which are loosely related to the subject or text you are discussing.

This activity encourages participants to think about the way that they think (and therefore learn) and consider the effect that external environments, influences and pressures might have on this. By working to the constraints of a given word they are required to use their imagination to encounter the world with a fresh pair of eyes, thus highlighting the benefits and barriers of their usual approach.


Your surrounding environment will determine how long your session will run but it may also help to determine the outcomes. Will participants respond differently to natural and urban environments? What kind of environment might be more suitable or challenging given the subject matter? Is this a new or familiar landscape to participants? How might this impact their experience?

There is no reason why you should only consider using this technique in outdoor spaces. The same principle could be used to explore art galleries, libraries, museum exhibits, books, films or even unusual teaching spaces like The Dark Would.

Scaffolding and anchoring

When using this activity in teaching you may find it useful for it to follow on from an initial seminar or workshop so that the subject matter is fresh in participants minds when they begin. At the end of their walk participants should be invited to feedback on their experience to the group. What did they discover? What did they do differently? What questions did the experience raise for them? You may also wish to invite creative methods of reflection (e.g. story, film, photography, poetry).

Questions to ask yourself

Facilitators will need to be aware of any physical limitations that participants may be working with, for example are they physically able to walk for the length of time that you are asking? Are they able to engage in the task alone? Is it safe? Do you have a backup plan if the weather is unsuitable?

Links to further resources

This technique was introduced to The Dark Would team by Lena Mech at her session for the 2016 Counterplay conference in Aarhus, Denmark.

Examples of how this technique has already been used - consequences

When creating The Dark Would space we were required to encounter an empty room and fill it with questions and meaning. When designing the space we often started with a single word (e.g. transformation) to help guide us. In a previous life, as a student of Art, my assessments were often based around a single world (e.g. ‘conflict’) as a source of inspiration. Even the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) has just a few select words around which we focus our work (innovation, inclusivity, internationalisation, interdisciplinarity); these constraints are useful for us all.

What we aren’t often granted is the time and permission to step back and make connections between the words we are given, the words that we choose, the spaces we inhabit and who we are as individuals. New ideas are often built on a solid foundation of known entities and so it's important to remind ourselves of what we already know in order to gain confidence in our own perspective. This is something I believe new learners can find particularly challenging.


The list of words that would be suitable for a one word walk is endless. They need to be broad enough that the walker can use them to interpret and shape their own journey and we have found using words for colours, textures, scale, emotions, or activities etc. a useful place to start. Some of our favourites have been 'blue', 'rough', 'small', 'conflict', 'reflect'.

Physical resources are not required for this task. However through our work on The Dark Would we have discovered that some props (costumes, hats, masks, face-paint etc.) can have a surprising effect on body language, the way that you encounter a space and the way that other people interact with you. Should you wish to explore this idea further a range of hats and masks are available to borrow from IATL. Please email IATL at warwick dot ac dot uk to find out more.