"BEANBAGS? ARE YOU SURE THAT'S THE topic for this column?" I asked, thinking to myself, "What more can be said about the lowly beanbag?"

Having pondered the topic, I've decided I do have quite a bit to say about this very useful toy. So-here goes!

When Is a Beanbag Not a Beanbag?

Beanbags, as we know, are bags filled with beans-except when they're not. Other fillings can add interest and variety. So if you have an abundance of beanbags around, open some and remove the beans. Then fill the bags with other items such as Styrofoam packaging "peanuts," small, natural river gravel for aquaria (natural gravel is smooth and will cause less wear on the inside of the beanbag than colored gravel), or even small rubber balls, like the ones used for playing "jacks." Now sew them up again.

If sewing is not your skill, decorate standard beanbags with designs and patterns or textures. With your new "stuff bags" (well, You wouldn't call them "bean" bags, since there are no beans!), you're now ready for some new activities.

Infants: Watch That Bag!

Place an array of brightly colored beanbags in a pattern for infants to observe. Place babies (who are able to hold their heads up) on their stomachs and arrange the beanbags in a pattern of alternating colors; then rearrange them to create different patterns and to cue visual exploration. Take beanbags that have high contrast colors (black/white or red/white) and move them slowly across the visual field of slightly older infants to stimulate visual attention and visual tracking. Use washable beanbags for older infants to hold and grasp.

Toddlers: Carrying On

Toddlers can use the beanbags to do a favorite activity: carrying "stuff." Encourage children to carry as many beanbags as they can (gathered in their arms) from one container to another. Count the beanbags as you load them into their arms. Prompt another toddler to follow behind with a small pail to collect the dropped bags. Count the bags as they are picked up, and help children sort them into piles according to color.

You can also have toddlers stand around one of the containers, each holding three or four beanbags to toss into the container. If the children have matching sets of beanbags, you can direct them to "toss the yellow beanbag in" as you hold up a yellow one. Guide children to the correct choice.

Toddlers will also enjoy the challenge of carrying beanbags stacked on a tray or plate: Pretend they're cookies and ask the children to carry them from the housekeeping area to the tables.

Preschoolers: It's a Toss-Up

Preschoolers can toss beanbags in a variety of ways to begin refining eye-hand coordination. Encourage them to toss with the right hand and catch with the left. They can then bend over and toss the beanbags back through their legs. Demonstrate a variety of ways to walk with beanbags: on your shoulders, on your head, on the palms of your hands facing up, on the backs of your hands facing up, on the tops of your feet. Then show them some balancing patterns and encourage them to imitate you.

Now ask them to try the same movements with the "stuff bags" (that is, those filled with something other than beans). Can they describe how they have to move differently with the different beanbags?

You can even use beanbags in your sensory activities. Take three or four beanbags and heat them to a WARM temperature in a microwave oven. (Make sure they are not too hot and that there is no metal on or in the beanbag.) Form a circle and ask children to pass the beanbags in time with music. Stop the music; whoever is holding one of the "hot potatoes" is out.

Kindergarten: FORE!

Kindergartners will enjoy beanbag golf. Make sure you use waterproof beanbags for this outdoor activity. Place several numbered (1, 2, and so on) hula hoops around the playground. Identify a starting point. Children toss the beanbags one at a time toward the hula hoops and then keep score to show how many tosses it took them to get into each "hole." Make some holes "longer" (farther away) than others.

For a variation, place a number of hula hoops in a line and then encourage children to stand side by side, each child paired with a hoop. You might start with the hoops 10 feet away and increase the distance as children get more skilled. Challenge children to find different ways to toss beanbags into the hoops: using their nondominant hands, over their shoulders, back through their legs, while standing on one foot, and so on.