Curiosity, dead chooks, science and the S.T.E.M. push

girl scientistAhhh, Science! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I became a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was ‘pulling my leg’. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle. And now, there’s an almost evangelistic push to promote S.T.E.M. – SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENGINEERING MATHS in schools (sometimes to the detriment of the Arts, History et al.

Recently I, along with engineer and author, Andrew King,Senior Lecturer and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at QUT, Professor Michael Milford, Teacher-Librarian and long-time advocate for children’s literature, Megan Daley spoke on a Book Links Queensland panel about S.T.E.M. But MAINLY, pushing the fact that we need children’s authors to provide worthwhile fiction to benefit young readers, to encourage their interest in these areas. I lead the charge for SCIENCE. Here is my talk……

CHILDREN ARE BORN SCIENTISTS … IT’S CALLED CURIOSITY
Bringing science into children’s literature

I’m not a university trained scientist, but I did become a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook. Headless and spraying blood, the animal wobbled and jumped about before flopping on the grass. I was transfixed.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was being silly. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle.

An ever-increasing curiosity about the natural world of my hometown in tropical north Queensland also led to my digging up the remains of a dead rooster buried in our back yard. And to poking a stick at a toad to make the white poison bubble from its skin. To wonder why salt grains became a salty, mushy liquid in our humid northern summers. It was also the time I began my first rock and feather collections. This natural curiosity was the origin of my lifelong fascination about science. At age 7, science also taught me a devastating lesson. Tying a string leash around a pet kitten’s neck is not wise – and if that string is shorter than the height of a fence, tragedy will strike.

Queensland Museum fossil lab - that's me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.

Queensland Museum fossil lab – that’s me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.

At 12, on a school excursion to Porcupine Gorge outside Hughenden, I found a large fossilised shell in the gorge wall. Questions filled my head. Why were shells in the dry outback when the sea was hundreds of kilometres away? Curiosity took hold again. I learned about the shallow inland ocean that covered most of Queensland millions of years ago – the great Eromanga Sea – alive with huge marine reptiles … overhead soared pterodactyl. And roaming the edges of billabongs and lakes, a multitude of Australian dinosaurs. 

It was inevitable that my first novel, Secrets of Eromanga would delve into the world of these intriguing creatures. And that I would work as a volunteer on the Elliot Dinosaur fossil dig while I wrote my work-in-progress. No other writers have had the opportunity to pester the country’s top paleontologists with endless questions … every day … for two weeks. And because they knew it was a book for kids, they went out of their way to help.

Then I married a scientist, an earthquake physicist who was part of a team designing, making, installing and monitoring Strain Meters deep in the San Andreas Fault in California (this video shows the best ever explanation why Earthquakes happen with such devastation, and why scientists continue researching early detection of them).

And now our son is a young scientist computer modelling the melting ice beneath the Totten Glacier in Antarctic. You can see why science is still an integral part of my life. And why I often write short stories with a scientific bent … and entertaining, of course!  21. Parkfield

So … what are some ingredients for linking science and literature?

I’ll use my chapter book, Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt as an example of how to expose children to science in the form of a folk tale, in an entertaining way. 

Rule 1 … never be didactic! Information should never be dumped! Kids should never be treated like sausage skins to be pumped with meaty facts. Therefore, no child thinks they are learning about Physical Science when they read Ali Berber’s adventures – that comes by osmosis and carefully chosen words.

Rule 2 – the story must entertain – that’s an essential. When kids enjoy what they read, they learn – not just information about their world and others, but also what it’s like to be human, and powerful and vulnerable.

Rule 3 – I want readers to connect with my main character. In this book, it’s young Ali Berber and his side-kick, a clever camel called Sufi. Readers need to like Ali Berber, to feel for this young merchant as he faces a huge PROBLEM … solving the mystery of the disappearing salt grains before the King of Alhambra cuts off his head.

A most important aspect in writing Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt was to explain the science behind PROPERTIES OF MATTER … in this case, Matter is Salt. How does salt change its look and feel? Why can it revert back to what it was?

I think this story is a successful combination of Science and Literature. And it’s fun to read. STEM talk1 resized

So, yes, I do think we as authors and lovers of children’s fiction must jump on the S.T.E.M. wagon too – not just to open children’s eyes, and brains, and imaginations about the world we live in, but for science to become an integral part of their lives.

Every human should have access to understanding science … it’s all around us, it’s part of who we are

And never more so than in our millennia. We face the prospect of a world threatened by global warming, but all children and their children after them will face far worse unless ordinary people force politicians to reduce carbon emissions now.

Millions of dollars are being invested in Australian schools to promote S.T.E.M. to teachers, young children and young adults. Much of it is coming from the Mining and Energy Council, and one of the biggest players now, Military-Industrial organisations. They are active in most states including Queensland.

These companies seek their future work-forces, both for the hard-hat, coal face end, and for those who secure ways to increase production. From researching methods to suck gas from the earth with, or without poisoning waterholes; to building drones that drop bombs at the touch of a computer screen, to developing a ray-gun that directs an invisible 100,000-watt beam of energy at humans, burning their skin until they retreat. These companies require more young people trained in science, and they will spend millions to do it. (The 5th biggest military contractor in the world, Raytheon‘s connections in Australian schools. Military connections to schools  ) A sobering thought.

But I will leave you with a more positive thought… we know great stories have the ability to make children think and feel. And question the status quo.

To counter-balance the power of other forces, we must produce more great stories about respecting the fragility of our unique continent, the need to enact laws that diminish the threat to our surrounding oceans, estuarine eco-systems and the Great Barrier Reef. 

To treasure that amazing continent to our south, the Antarctic – a frozen, wondrous land that, unfortunately hides beneath its pristine surface, an unimaginable wealth of minerals. 

We have the opportunity, the passion and hopefully, the commitment to reach out to young Australian children through stories about the wonder of science, and the responsibility for their future custody of this planet.

Great stories, cleverly laced with scientific understanding not didactic waffle.
Great stories to make them feel and think, and question.
Great stories – for the sake of their future on this planet.

What makes a winning short story?

That’s like asking how long is a piece of string. There are endless articles written on this genre – most provide very useful hints in your quest to write the genre, and most as useful as a ball of string. Imagine the uses for a ball of string! chinese-paper-cutting-arts-running-horses2

We short story-tellers aim for one thing. To write a perfect story that will make your readers feel. To bring tears, or make them laugh out loud on public transport. Or angry enough to spit chips. Or for your story to stay in their mind. To indent. Imprint.

Writing Flash fiction is to seek fluid, snappy exposés of the human condition; sensory, uncluttered, a stories that rings with a sense of shared humanity … to me, that is the ultimate challenge of a short, short story. Oh, yes, I almost forgot to add the need for a twist, that ah-ah moment at the end that surprises the reader and the characters. The ultimate challenge for the Flash Fiction writer.

Recently, my flash fiction won the Write Links Short Story Competition. It’s one of my favourites amongst the 52 I wrote for the year-long Flash Fiction Challenge on Facebook. What a fabulous, pressure-filled, exciting year it was for the short story writers on the FF Challenge.

I was thrilled, of course that others loved my story THE LITTLE PAPER-CUTTER OF FUSHUN as much as I do. And also that the judge of this literary competition, well-respected ex-Teacher-Librarian, Mia Macrossan is a past judge for the Children’s Book Council of Australia and President of the Qld branch now. She is no ‘fly-in-fly-out’ sort of judge – she knows her ‘stuff’. And she is a brilliant advocate for children’s literature.

I follow some important ‘rules’ when I write short stories. Finding the perfect story idea requires lots of ‘what ifs’ and a bit of alchemy. When you do find it here are some hints…

  • Focus on a single event, or a small, tight, right issue … one theme only!
  • Limit your characters.
  • Ensure your reader connects with your main character … quickly.
  • Bring the CONFLICT in as soon as you can.
  • Use your senses!!
  • Write them yourself – that’s the best way to learn how to teach the skill to others.

There, that sounds easy, doesn’t it? Said with tongue-in-cheek. Because the less words you have to use (like in PICTURE BOOKS) the more challenging it is to write. But we all LOVE challenges, don’t we?

I’m about to take up another challenge … re-writing thirty of my Flash Fiction stories (for adults) into an independently published (new-speak for ‘doing it oneself’ because trade publishers don’t) short story collection. I’ll add a section on writing winning short fiction too. It’s called EVERY GRAIN OF SAND … a short story collection. It’ll be out later this year both in print and ebook. Keep an eye out for it. 

I have a fabulous editor – Ann Harth, and I’ll be putting myself into the supportive hands of Anthony Puttee at Book Cover Cafe Book Cover Designer and Publishing Services. I have seen Anthony’s work on other books and I like the professional look he gets.

In May 2016, I will be a presenter at the Rainforest Writing Retreat at O’Reilly’s Guest House up on the Lamington Plateau, alongside authors, editors and publishers, Charmaine Clancy, Anthony Puttee, Kelly Hart, and …. check out the photo below! Yes, JOHN MARSDEN. How exciting is that.

rainforest retreat

Have fun writing, folks!

 If you’d like me to visit your classroom, check out my listing in SPEAKERS INK, the speaker’ booking agency.

If you would like to book a WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE stint with me at your school, email me on my website. 

SEVEN TALES chapbook

A new collection of short stories for kids … SEVEN TALES.
A chapbook of seven stories to delight readers aged around 9-11
27 full pages – from folk tales and fables to fantasy, funny and contemporary.
Illustrated by well-known political cartoonist and story illustrator, SEAN LEAHY  

 Here’s a taste of Sean’s illustrations in my chapbook

BOOK IS AVAILABLE VIA MY WEBSITE … or contact me via email.

 

My Essentials for Being an Author

Vermeer's writerWhen I run writing classes, people often ask for hints on how to become better writers (and so do children – thankfully, for a future of great stories still to come!)

These are the essentials I pass on…..

  • Have an active imagination. Always ask, WHAT IF?

  • Be an acute observer of people, nature, places and things. Learn how to develop an ‘artist eye and ear’. Be aware of all your senses, totally.

  • Read voraciously (like a foraging seagull) with a hunger for story.

  • Learn by osmosis, and from the wise advice of the experienced and the successful; to glean more information on how to do it better from books and the web, and also from workshops run by those who have been ‘through the mill’ themselves, and who’ve gained much knowledge from their wide experience.

  • You will face manuscript rejections – regard them as your apprenticeship. Even experienced writers get manuscripts rejected. We are a small market in Australia. Unfortunately, a fact of life.

  • Never give up. If you are truly meant to be a writer, perseverance and toughness is essential at those most vulnerable moments of painful rejection or ‘so-so’ reviews. But you will pick yourself up, learn from the experience and start editing and re-writing to make your story even better.

  • Join a small writers’ group you can trust in – everyone there will understand the mountains we travail in this job; they will support, just like you would do in return.

ENJOY THE JOURNEY!

Image: Johannes Vermeer’s portrait of a writing woman in 1670-71. One of his beautiful studies of women in the sublime light of his studio. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Writing_a_Letter_with_her_Maid

I’m in heaven … the writerly kind

I’ve settled well in my Fellowship Creative Time Residency in the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust‘s gorgeous apartment in Norwood. It’s cosy, roomy and well set up for their chosen Fellows.

Inside the May Gibbs CLT apartment, Adelaide.

Inside the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust apartment, Adelaide.

I’m here to finish the ‘first’ draft of my current work-in-process, VIVALDI’S ANGEL. It’s progressing well, thankfully! How lucky am I to be able to have this four weeks time to escape into the 18th Century Italian Baroque, to Venice and into the lives of street urchin, Caterina L’Artiglia (the Claw), and that genius, the composer, virtuoso violinist and music teacher, Antonio Vivaldi. Yes, I do play my tiny collection of some of Vivaldi’s 500 concertos to help me on my way.

My main character, 12-year-old, Caterina’s ‘voice’ grows stronger in my brain – I suspect it’s always been there but I wasn’t listening very well. But where did that stray, three-legged black cat come from? I had no intention putting a cat in this story, and yet, there she is. That’s what I love about discovering a story – you never know where it will lead.

I do know the ending though, and much of what is to unfold. That’s because I’m a ‘plotter’, rather than a ‘pantser’ so I have a rough outline that evolves naturally as I follow the desires and ultimate journey of my main character, a feisty, street child who’s cursed with a claw-hand, but blessed with the voice of an angel. Vivaldi also plays his part in this plot.

One of the famous images by Canaletto, who lived there at the time.

One of the famous images by Canaletto, who lived there at the time.

I also get to be the author-in-residence for Scotch College’s junior school – a lovely place in beautiful surroundings. Started my week today with them, and what a great bunch of kids and librarians they are. Thank you, Fiona and Lucy for preparing my way. It’s going splendidly in their lovely library. Today, I worked with Years 3/4s and Year 6s. Hopefully my throat and voice will hold out until the end of the week – but it’s going to be a great one! Now, back to writing I go.

With Years 3/4s.

With Years 3/4s Scotch College, Adelaide.

My Writing Process (never a dull moment) Blog Tour

Thank you to talented and all-round lovely person, author, Julie Fison who has invited me to be part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour. Julie, along with several other well-known children’s authors lives in my suburb in Brisbane, Queensland. Must be something in the water! I write children’s novels, short stories, chapter books, school plays and flash fiction for adults. Okay, so here goes…. my Writing Process

What am I working on?
I usually have several things on the go – like just completing the final edit for new chapter book, The Magic Globe (due out mid-2014), working on my 52,000 word novel, Sweet Adversity, seeing my children’s play, Rosie, hero of Eggstown get published in the Irish kids’ publication, Through the Looking Glass Magazine. I’m also writing an adult flash fiction story a week for my 52-Week Flash Fiction Challenge blog this year. It’s been totally manic, but I love creating these short/short stories around a word theme. This week’s word was ATONE. Tricky, but I’m happy with the result.

52 week flash fiction imageMy main focus in the first half of 2014 is to complete the final polish of Sweet Adversity – an historical adventure set in the Great Depression in Australia. It’s for 10-13 year olds (and adults who like reading kids’ novels, haha. Yeah, that’s all of us, isn’t it?)

In 2013, this manuscript won a SCBWI International RA/ARA Work of Outstanding Promise award – a generous grant that’s helped me travel to Canberra’s National Library to research the affect of the Great Depression on Australian children.

Sweet Adversity means so much to me – its real-time history flavour; its protagonist, Addie McAlpine, a feisty and talented runaway from an orphanage; her pet galah, Macbeth, a bird with a repertoire of Shakespearean quotes; two twisted adults who’ll do anything in their power to get what they want from Addie, and a quest to the death.

I’ve always loved the language and drama of Shakespeare’s plays – from right back when, as a student, and a troop of Shakespearean actors arrived on a train in my tiny, Queensland outback town. They played The Merchant of Venice. One of them (apparently) was a young Geoffrey Rush. Of course, there are other influences surrounding this work-in-progress. Hope you get to read it in the real one day!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write with a slight literary style (I do love the magic and rhythm of words), but I keep in mind the reader’s enjoyment of the story is what matters in the end. Some say I have a great feel of writing the landscape of my stories – you’ll have to read them to see what that means. I’m also an artist, so landscapes have been significant in my life – sensory observation is second nature now, especially of some places that have left indelible impressions on my mind.

Earthquake country, California.

Earthquake country, California. Oil on board

I also like to make my stories a little different – like in Secrets of Eromanga, a junior fiction contemporary novel set on a fossil dig near Winton, Queensland. Every alternate chapter jumps back 350 million years to document the life story of a courageous, young female ornithopod called Wintonopus latomorum.

As I wrote, I became as attached to that gentle dinosaur as I did to Ellie, my human character. And like the kids who read the book, deeply felt Wintonopus’s ultimate demise.

An adventure set on a western Queensland fossil dig. Suitable for upper-primary readers.

An adventure set on a western Queensland fossil dig. Suitable for upper-primary readers.

How does your writing process work?
It depends on what I’m writing. I get ideas all the time – sometimes they cellar like a good wine until formed into a story. Other times, those impulses grow silver wings and off they go. Still, I do edit and rewrite MANY times. I’ve submitted manuscripts before they’re ready. But I’m learning to be patient nowadays. I like to start with a plot plan/outline (so I know the ending, sort of), then let my imagination free reign to think laterally.

I love the editing process – that’s when my brain really fires up. Sometimes I end up with a plotline that is nothing like I thought it would be. Very exciting!

I also enjoy being part of the wider world of children’s books – with a two-year stint as a Board Director of The Australian Society of Authors, and as an Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in the Australia East/New Zealand region (SCBWI).

Playing a leadership role in our children’s writing world is like adding grease to the squeaky wheel of authorship.

I’ve met people – other authors, illustrators, editors, publishers and librarians – they’ve helped increase my desire to write the best I can, they give me encouragement in those ‘down times’, they help feed my quest for knowledge, and they’re fun to be with – what more could an author ask for?

Coming up soon … an author and an illustrator I know you’ll love to know more about. Names revealed soon!!

To do or not to do … a.k.a. submitting a story

It feels strange to finally send off a story to publishers – especially a story that links to Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush (in an odd way).

I’ve worked on this manuscript for many years – it’s got a new name, and been changed in so many ways since I blogged about it in 2010. Part of me fears for its future, part of me rejoices in the fact it’s out there under the glare of lights. And the eyes of editors. It’s now called Sweet Adversity. (If you’re into Shakespeare, you’ll get that reference).

FEBRUARY 10 2010 Several weeks ago, I finished my mentorship novel, McAlpine & Macbeth with the Australian Society of Authors Mentorship . It was a fantastic experience – from learning more on the craft of writing from my mentor, Sally Rippin, to researching the Great Depression in Australia, to putting the final polish to a story that inched its way into my life like a stray child.

Mostly, it has been a labour of love over seven years. But there have also been times when the manuscript annoyed the hell out of me. Then it sat in the naughty chair in the corner, out of sight, out of mind. When the plotting got too difficult, I let other stories slip into its place as the ‘Work-in-Progress’. It sat there on the shelf, glaring at me for months, but then offering possibilities of plot-solving and pushing the characters further than I had before.

It tantalised me every time I saw an article about Shakespeare, or recognised a quote from one of his plays (you may have guessed from the title, it owes more than a little allegiance to The Bard). Like Macbeth, a pet galah in my story, Shakespeare’s magical mixture of spoken aloud words in his Plays captivate me.

My subversion to William Shakespeare happened when I was a student at a country school in regional Queensland in the late 1960s. One day, a troupe of travelling Shakespearean actors arrived in town on the train. We students sat on hard seats under the tin roof of the town hall – pesky and smelly and ready to dismiss it as a waste of time. But then the actors began The Merchant of Venice.

By the end of Act 1 you could’ve heard a pin drop on the splintery floor. I found out years later that one of those actors was the young Geoffrey Rush.

There is another reason I was determined to complete this story with its runaway girl, Shakespearean-quoting galah and a perfect pair of villains.

I have a close family link to that mostly unknown part of Australian history – the travelling actors who brought live drama to outback towns in the late 1880s.

Three generations ago, 18 year-old Lavinia Margaret McAlpine, and her father, Daniel travelled through northern New South Wales, part of an acting troupe. They didn’t confine themselves to Shakespeare – they also put on plays by demand. Like Ten Nights on a Bar-Room Floor. Paid for no doubt by the local chapter of the Anti-Alcohol Society.

There are other hand-me-down stories of Lavinia’s life – and a couple of them have inspired events in my story. I could tell you more, but it will have to wait for the day my story finally meets a publisher who will fall in love with it.

FEBRUARY 26 2014  Sweet Adversity work-in-progress was awarded a SCBWI International Work-of-Outstanding-Promise grant in September 2013. I’m using the money to travel to the National Library in Canberra to continue research in the best place in Australia to find out more of the Great Depression’s affect upon children.

I’ll never give up on this story. I owe it to the indomitable spirit of Lavinia Margaret McAlpine and Geoffrey Rush not to.

An Aussie Year Virtual Tour … with Tania McCartney, author

So very happy to host Tania McCartney, Aussie author and my good friend as she launches another of her great books. Congratulations, Tania.:)

Here’s the chance to win An Aussie Year Greeting Card Pack!

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An Aussie Year – to celebrate Tania McCartney’s new book, here is your change to sneak a peak at February. ?????????????????February is back to school time for Aussie kids, when everything is fresh and smelling shiny. Kids love their new pencil cases and books, extra-sharp pencils and glossy school shoes. There are new tags on school bags, and lots of energy for playing schoolyard games like skipping and handball.

?????????????????Many kids ride a school bus but some walk, or ride a bike or scooter. If kids need to cross a road, a lollipop lady in a yellow vest helps them at the zebra crossing. If they’re lucky, Mum tucks a dollar in their uniform pocket, to spend at the tuck shop.

On 14 February, it’s Valentine’s Day. Some kids hand out love notes at school, and Dad makes Mum smile when he brings home flowers and chocolates (the kids usually eat the chocolates).

?????????????????Chinese New Year often falls in February. Kids make lots of noise with firecrackers and music. Some families stay up all night and eat noodles (for a long life). Adults give children money in red envelopes.

?????????????????It’s hot in February. Kids swim in backyard pools or skim pebbles in the creek after school. Some kids might go for a surf or do some skateboarding or ride mountain bikes in the bushland surrounding their home. Such is the diversity of the Aussie childhood.

WIN! A Aussie Year Greeting Card Pack

And because An Aussie Year is a very special book, I’m running a competition for a fabulous prize giveaway—a pack of exclusive An Aussie Year cards, valued at $41.70!

To win, just leave a comment on this post, 25 words or less, telling me which February tradition you celebrate with your children and why.

Book Info

An Aussie Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Australian Kids by Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling

(Oct 2013, EK Publishing, $19.99, hard cover, 9781921966248)

Meet Ned, Lily, Zoe, Kirra and Matilda––three Aussie kids keen to take you on a journey through a year in the life of Australian children, from cultural celebrations to traditions and events, to our everyday way of life.
An Aussie Year is a picture book bursting with national pride. It is a snapshot of who we are as a nation, covering our melting-pot culture, lifestyle and traditions. Its pages feature trailing, meandering text, dates and gorgeous illustrations showing our five Aussie children at play, at school, at home, enjoying their homeland––from the tropical north to our rugged west.
Trailing through the seasons and idiosyncrasies endemic to each month of the year, this is Our Australian Childhood.

 About the Creators

Tania McCartney is a book-obsessed author, editor, reviewer, photographer, traveller, mum of two and wife of one. She simply adores words and paper—and would ingest them if she could (though she’ll settle for a good coffee). She frequently flits around cyberspace but can also be seen visiting schools and libraries, running workshops, reading to kids or pushing tomes onto unsuspecting shoppers in bookshops. Tania lives in Canberra, but would like to live inside a book. http://www.taniamccartney.com

Tina Snerling is a designer, illustrator, artist, web designer, seamstress and mum. She adores Paris, fabric, design and paper. She lives a very illustrated life—one day she’s creating children’s books, the next she’s creating websites (in between the washing and school lunches!). She’s the type who has a notebook by her bed because most good ideas happen when you’re supposed to be sleeping. She lives in Brisbane with her two gorgeous poppets and one gorgeous husband. An Aussie Year Virtual Tour FINAL jpgAn Aussie Year Virtual Tour Schedule

Join Ned, Zoe, Lily, Kirra and Matilda on this journey around the webosphere, from 21 October to 21 November. There will be reviews, sneak peeks, guest posts and lots of fabulous giveaways including some publishing opps! See the entire tour schedule right here http://taniamccartney.blogspot.com/2013/09/an-aussie-year-virtual-tour.html

Visit the An Aussie Year website (www.anaussieyear.com.au) to meet all the characters from the book, see updates and behind-the-scenes work. There’s also some Fun Activities for kids.