Prop boxes have long been a staple of early childhood curriculum. As teachers we've all become adept at using these portable "learning centers," whether they're dramatic play prop boxes or ones that focus on art, gardening, or water play. Prop boxes are great for physical development too, and we can go beyond balls and jump ropes.

The contents of a prop box should be tied to specific learning outcomes and can be as varied and personal. We can have "standard" items (balls, ropes, cones) that can be used in a nonstandard way or nonstandard items that will be used in either standard or nonstandard ways.

A ball, for example, would be a standard item. Used in a standard way, children can throw it, catch it, or bounce it. However, that same ball could be used in a nonstandard way-if a kindergartner held one between her knees as she ran or if two children tried to hold a beach ball on two yardsticks and roll it back and forth. Wadded newspapers taped into a ball with masking tape (for preschoolers) or several pairs of socks bundled together (for toddlers) could be used instead of balls to develop a standard skill - throwing. Here are some age-by-age ideas for using prop boxes.

Infants Love "Throw-toys"

For an infant "throwing prop box" (yes, infants as young as 10 or 11 months can begin developing throwing skills), try hacky-sack balls (preferably brightly colored) and pin cushions (minus the pins, of course!). The idea is to find items that infants can grasp easily and squeeze into a holdable shape rather than a ball that generally maintains its round shape when picked up. Infant throw-toys need to be cleaned frequently so germs don't get passed along.

To use a throw-toy with an infant, gently toss the item into the child's lap while she is sitting. (Remember: To do this activity, children this age will need the basic skills of sitting erect and holding an item while maintaining their balance.) Describe what you are doing as you throw the item. ("Look, Gracie. I'm throwing the ball to you.") Encourage the child as she picks up the toy, moves her hand upward, and/or releases the toy: "Good! You've got it. Now throw it back." You'll be playing "catch" with the infants in your program in no time.

Toddles Can Balance

For toddlers you may want to broaden the appeal of your prop boxes. Along with beanbag-type toys, bundled socks, and small beach balls (slightly under-inflated) that children can use for throwing and catching practice, include wide ribbons they can use to "balance" on as they walk. (Beats falling off a balance beam!) You can also encourage toddlers to walk on doubled layers of bubble wrap for a new balancing experience.

Preschoolers Need a Challenge

For preschool children, use a hula hoop as a balance-circle. The task of walking on a curved surface will present new challenges. Also include in your prop box sponges cut into the shapes of footprints. Dip these into tempera paint and mark off trails for preschoolers to follow on sidewalks. Space the steps close together - 9 to 12 inches apart - and create twists and turns in the trails. You can also lay down the trail of footprints so the children have to cross one foot over the other. This will create new balance and agility challenges.

Kindergartners Play Catch

Kindergartners can use lightweight, soft plastic eggs as throwing toys (one-piece plastic eggs that simulate real eggs, not the snap-together type). To catch and throw these, children must adjust their grip. Another original addition to the prop box is a circular mouse pad, which kindergartners can use as a throwing disk instead of a frisbee. You can also introduce mouse pad golf: Children toss a mouse pad into a hula hoop. When they successfully get it in the hoop, they have completed that "hole."

Now Try This

For Children 3½ and older

1 At your local hardware store, buy a 10 foot piece of ¾-inch or 1-inch PYC pipe for sprinklers. Cut it into 8-inch to 12-inch pieces with a saw and smooth the edges with sandpaper or an emery board.

2 Invite each child to hold the tube in both hands without covering the open ends.

3 Place a marble in the tube.

4 Encourage the child to keep the tube balanced so the marble doesn't roll out!

5 When a child accomplishes the task successfully, encourage him to walk a short distance without letting the marble roll out.