Young children develop a variety of skills and derive many health benefits from riding toys.

Stand-up riders help kindergartners develop coordination and balance. 

RIDING TOYS AND PUSH-PULL TOYS ARE traditionally part of every good early childhood program. Young children can develop a wide variety of skills and derive numerous health benefits from riding toys - if we are careful in setting up the riding-toy area and thoughtful about the items we place in it.

Designing Your Area

Because of the vigorous and rapid movement that accompanies riding-toy play, it is important to have an area designed specifically for that type of activity. Large flat asphalt or concrete areas can be dangerous even if you have marked off a track. Young ones tend to ignore the lines-whether they are on riding toys or not - and can collide with others and get hurt. You should also avoid having a large track that loops around the entire play area: It is difficult to supervise and such a setup encourages "racing." And keep in mind that walking paths don't translate well into riding-toy tracks: There's bound to be a conflict over use.

But even if your riding area is an open-plan stretch of flat asphalt, you can make it work!

First, avoid having too many riding toys in the area. (Assuming your track is large enough, aim for 1/4 to 1/3 of your class to be using riding toys at any one time.) Second, remove all other toys from the area. (Trying to have children on riding toys while other children are playing in the vicinity is a recipe for disaster.) Third, mark a course with something other than a paint line. Try connecting a few garden hoses together to form a more visible perimeter to the riding-toy course. Fourth, use cardboard boxes, low tables, and other similar items to stimulate dramatic play. Fifth, create "speed bumps" by tightly stretching short lengths of garden hose across the track and pinning them on either side of the track to a board that is anchored with a long spike.

Infants: Easy Riders

Use "deep-well" wagons with lots of padding so non-sitting infants can have prone riding experiences. Make sure you shield children's skin and eyes when they're in the wagons.

Toddlers: Walking Around

Choose walk-behind toys with a low center of gravity that won't tip easily. (Push down on the handles to determine how easily a toy tips.) Children this age love toys that make a noise when pushed. Older toddlers will want toys that they can ride on and push with their feet. (This bipedal motion will be necessary for trike riding later on.) Toddlers love to move things and carry them around, so make sure you have wagons.

Preschoolers: Drama on the Road

Add toys that can support cooperative dramatic play, such as two seaters, toys with carts, or wagons that children can use to give friends a ride. Hand-powered toys will build upper-body and arm strength as well as develop cardiovascular fitness.

Kindergartners: Scooting Away

Supply old mittens or child-size gardening gloves to help reduce the number of injured fingers when children use scooter boards (toys on which young ones sit or lie and propel themselves by pushing along with their hands). Push scooters and other standup riders also help children develop coordination, leg strength, and balance. You may want to get a few of the very popular "off-road trikes" with large knobby tires. (Be prepared for these to become the vehicle of choice very quickly among the kindergarten and even the preschool set!) Make the riding-toy area a key feature when planning your outdoor-play program. By adding props and some of the items discussed above, you can turn a lemon of a riding-toy area into refreshing lemonade!