Archives for category: fun activities

Twitter is a wonderful way to make new friends. Recently a head teacher I follow drew my attention to a knitted puffin that a Glasgow teacher had put up on Twitter. She thought it looked very like one of the characters of my puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

I was impressed, and wondered if Susan the clever knitter would be able to create a fluffy grey puffling to go with me on school and nursery visits when I’m reading my new puffin story, Skye the Puffling. Through Twitter I was able to chat to Susan about what Skye should look like, and show her the lovely illustration by Jon Mitchell:

Skye coverSusan immediately set to work, and soon I was able to see my little puffling taking shape! Not being a knitter myself, I was baffled by the complex knitting instructions she seemed to be following. A fluffy little grey thing began to emerge…

knitting-skye-1Next she sent me a little bird shape and I could imagine a very cute, fluffy puffling who looked soft and snuggly:

knitting-skye-2Finally, Susan sent me a picture of Skye with eyes and a beak, with the message, “only the feet to add.” Little Skye was soon finished, and Susan and I agreed to meet up so I could repay her with three copies of my puffin books.

knitting-skye-3My fluffy Skye has already come with me to a Bookbug Library Challenge event at Drymen Library, and she was very well received! I’ve got another event tomorrow at Alloa Library, and Skye will be coming with me again, to be sure.

fluffy-skyeI was very touched by Susan’s generosity, and it was a real pleasure to meet her for a chat as we exchanged puffins. Many thanks to Joyce Hawkins who first alerted me to Susan’s impressive knitting talents!

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

While I was on holiday in Spain another knitted item caught my eye. It was a pair of soft and squishy cactus plants with brilliant care instructions: “Cactus of extremely slow, almost imperceptible growth. Easy to care for, simply give abundant morning smiles.” As my daughter is a huge cactus fan, I took a photo of them to show her. I’m glad I did, as it meant I could show the same photo to Susan. I thought she could easily knit a cactus and find a pot for it, and sure enough, she had already done it!

Susan Quinn's cactus.

Susan Quinn’s cactus.

It seems there is no end to what you can do with knitting needles! Susan is already thinking about Christmas…

squinn-tree

Winnequah Dream Park in Monona, Wisconsin. Photo from www.mymonona.com

Winnequah Dream Park in Monona, Wisconsin. Photo from http://www.mymonona.com

Recently I was doing some research for a simple, non-fiction book about playgrounds (published by Cambridge University Press) and I was amazed at all the brilliant and imaginative play spaces I found. Wooden castles with giant serpents, crazy ice palaces, wild water jets and wonderful animal sculptures – there was no end to the inventive playgrounds I came across. It made me wish I were a kid again!

On Wednesday 4 May, the Duchess of Cambridge will officially open a new playground at Hampton Court Palace in what used to be King Henry VIII’s tiltyard (where he held jousting tournaments). It’s called the Magic Garden, and it features bright red and blue towers (King’s and Queen’s), a moat, a secret grotto and a very scary smoke-breathing dragon!

Hampton Court Magic Garden, from www.hrp.org.uk

Hampton Court Magic Garden, from http://www.hrp.org.uk

You can see the dragon’s head on the left of the picture above. Close-up he looks like this:

The Magic Garden dragon, from https://londonist.com

The Magic Garden dragon, from https://londonist.com

Apparently every hour his eyes light up and steam rolls out of his mouth! Behind the dragon on a grassy mound is a large metal feature that is shaped like King Henry VIII’s crown. From up there you can survey the entire garden (and spot your family if you’ve lost them!)

If you like the idea of climbing all over scaly monsters, here’s another surprising playground feature: a giant pike! It was designed by a Danish company called Monstrum, and stands in Annedals Park in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Monstrum pike, from their website at www.monstrum.dk

The Monstrum pike, from their website at http://www.monstrum.dk

Monstrum create all sorts of amazing wooden structures for children’s playgrounds, including moon rockets, submarines, snail shells and a haunted house. The company was started by two men who were set designers and builders for Danish theatre. When one of them joined the parents’ committee of his son’s nursery to look into buying playground equipment, he realised he could design and build something much better himself. That’s how Monstrum was born.

Brumleby play area in Copenhagen, from www.monstrum.dk

Brumleby play area in Copenhagen, from http://www.monstrum.dk

The wonky buildings in this playground in Copenhagen reflect the design of the surrounding houses in a comical and surreal way. What child could resist exploring this weird play space that includes three houses, a baker’s shop, a slide and a rope bridge? Do take a look at the Monstrum website to see the amazing designs they have built all over Europe, Scandinavia and even Russia. I wish I spoke Danish so I could work for them!

Another company that makes fun wooden playground equipment (among other things) is Adirondack Storage Barns in upstate New York. The boat above is like a little Noah’s Ark, which you half expect to find full of animals in pairs. It would be great to climb inside and peek out those portholes. If you don’t fancy a boat to climb on, how about a wooden train?

I can imagine all sorts of kids having fun on the train, though there might be some disputes about who is going to drive… Adirondack also make a tractor and trailer that would hold a good crowd.

Tractor and trailer from www.adirondackstoragebarns.com

Tractor and trailer from http://www.adirondackstoragebarns.com

But not all playground equipment is made of wood. What would you think of exploring a huge amusement park made of ice? Every year in northeastern China, ice sculptors gather to create the most amazing play space for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Children enjoying the slides at the Harbin Ice Festival in China. Photo from www.mymodernmet.com

Children enjoying the slides at the Harbin Ice Festival in China. Photo from http://www.mymodernmet.com

Blocks of ice are taken from the Songhua River to build impressive castles and super-fast ice slides. They look best at night when lit up by colourful lights. Looks like fun, but you’d have to bundle up!

At the other extreme, when the weather is way too hot, you can always get yourself to Washington Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there’s a brilliant interactive water feature. Over 130 pop-up jets spray water in time to music and lights, and everyone just jumps in!

The walk home would be pretty soggy, but it would be worth it!

WBD HDlogo

March 3rd 2016 is World Book Day, and in schools and libraries across the country everyone is getting involved in the celebrations! To get kids reading, National Book Tokens have teamed up with publishers and booksellers to give everyone in school a free book of their choice. The £1 book token can be used in bookshops to buy any of the following excellent options, or you can use it to get £1 off another full-price book or audio book.

2016 book titles from the World Book Day website

The 2016 £1 book titles from the World Book Day website

On Thursday the 3rd, lots of people will also be dressing up as their favourite book character and donating funds to Book Aid International to send much-needed books to libraries in Africa. If you’re looking for last-minute dress-up ideas, check out their World Book Day Dress-Up webpage. Over the past 60 years, Book Aid International has sent 31 million books to African countries. Here’s a great video they have created called The Journey of a Book which shows every stage, from the initial printing of a book to its arrival in African schools, libraries and universities.

Book-related activities are happening all this week, and lots of children’s authors like myself are visiting schools and libraries to share their stories. I had a great time on Tuesday visiting the P3 and P4 classes at Darnley Primary School. I brought Lewis, Harris and Skye for a fun puffin-themed writing workshop. The puffin toys got a great reception (lots of ooos and ahhhs) and the children enjoyed a sneak preview of Skye the Puffling which comes out in a week or two.

puffin holiday plan

On Thursday I’ll be visiting Holy Cross Primary School, where authors and other interesting characters (such as North American hockey players and Scottish movie stars) are invited every World Book Day to share their favourite children’s book with a class. I’m going to read Gabrielle and Selena by Peter Desbarats, first published in 1968. The illustrations are in black and white and the text is quite long, so it’s very different from picture books you see nowadays. But the story is clever and very funny, so I’m sure the children will enjoy it!

A friend of mine works in a nursery, and she has invited me to come on Friday and read to the three- and four-year-olds she looks after. I’ll choose my simpler books, like One Potato, Clementine’s Smile and Never Bite a Tiger on the Nose to entertain the little ones. It’s lovely to have a chance to nurture a love of books with very small children. The sooner they discover the joys of reading a story, the better their chances of reading for pleasure when they grow up.

If you’re looking for ideas to celebrate books this year, have a look at the Big Book Off on the World Book Day website where you’ll find suggestions like making a book-based game, discovering a new author or illustrator, creating a picture of your favourite scene from a book, or acting it out for an audience! There are also lots of online games on the Play and Win page, where you can answer questions about Harry Potter or go on a Young Bond secret agent mission, among many other games. Time to get reading! Happy World Book Day!

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?

pumpkin tableWith Halloween approaching, we thought it would be fun to have a pumpkin-carving party. Thirteen Chinese students came to our house, where I had carefully covered our dining room table with newspaper and gathered a collection of paring knives and big spoons. Luckily they brought a few knives of their own, as well as a nice assortment of pumpkins.

There isn’t a tradition of Halloween in China, so I tried to explain the origins of this pagan festival. I think it began in Ireland hundreds of years ago, when people celebrated the Celtic festival of Samhain. This was long before electric lights, so as winter approached at the end of October only fires could fend off the cold and dark. On the last night of October the Celts believed that the souls of the dead could join the living, and to keep these spirits happy they left food and drink for them outside their houses. There was feasting and celebration, and to avoid being tricked by the mischievous spirits, people disguised themselves in masks and costumes when they went out after dark.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, when Irish immigrants who had settled in America began reviving this autumn festival, that the Halloween we know today began to develop. In time, Halloween became a big part of all North American children’s childhoods (including my own!) I remember dressing up to go out “trick-or-treating” and coming home to count the hoard of sweets I had collected. When we moved to England in 1971 I was very disappointed to discover on October 31st that Halloween was quite unheard of there!

Now, over forty years later, Halloween has really taken off in the UK thanks to its huge popularity in North America. Witches and vampires and black cats are everywhere, and costume shops are doing a roaring trade just now! The supermarkets are heaving with pumpkins, although apparently it’s been a bad crop in England this year, thanks to too much rain. Here in Scotland we have plenty, and so we got carving!

pumpkin guttingThe first step in carving a pumpkin is to cut a hole in the top to make a lid. The stem of the pumpkin makes a perfect handle, and if you cut an irregular-shaped opening it will be easier to fit the lid back on. Star shapes were very popular with our Chinese guests, so this pumpkin has a nice star lid. It’s important to cut the lid on a slight angle towards the stem. That way the lid will sit on the top rather than falling into the hole. Next you have to dig out all the “guts” which is a messy, slimy business! Make sure you have lots of newspaper underneath before you start.

pumpkin gutsIf you want to, it’s possible to separate and wash the pumpkin seeds and toast them in the oven. The familiar green pumpkin seeds you can get in the supermarket are inside those white husks. For a recipe for toasted pumpkin seeds, click HERE.

tiger face 1The next step is to draw your pumpkin’s face with a pencil. Choose the smoothest, cleanest side to work on. The pumpkin above was getting a tiger face, including whiskers and a Chinese symbol on its forehead meaning “king of the world”!

tiger face 2You can see this tiger pumpkin is coming along nicely. Other students consulted their iPhones for ideas on what sort of face to carve. There were some amazing results, like this very toothy character:

toothy pumpkinHere is another one with a starry-eyed grin:

big pumpkinWhen all the pumpkins were finished, we got out the little tea light candles and turned out the lights. Having a box of very long matches is crucial, as the only way to light the candle inside is to reach in through the mouth. It was a challenge, but we got them all lit, with dramatic results!

jackolanternsAnd here is the tiger, burning bright!

tiger burningHappy Halloween, everyone!

toothy grins