After one child-care center began teaching juggling to the children, the skills began to fly.

WHEN HEATHER CONLEY'S husband Joseph suggested that she start teaching juggling to the children at her preschool, she told him he was crazy. "I thought juggling was for the circus," she says, "but I was surprised at how easy it was. I learned the basics in 10 minutes."

Her husband, a K-3 physical education teacher, had just attended a conference that emphasized juggling's benefits for children. He learned that the activity, which usually helps focus the attention of children with learning disabilities, can also help teach everything from hand-eye coordination to pre-reading skills. When Conley introduced juggling to the 56 children in her center, Heather's Child Place in Montgomery, New York, she first noticed the cardiovascular benefits. The children, who range in age from 18 months to 5 years, enjoyed tossing the scarves up high and bending down low to pick them up. But then she started to see for herself the different skills children were learning.

"When you give a 2-year-old a bright nylon or gossamer scarf, it becomes a science experiment," she says. "The child throws it up in the air and watches it float down slowly, like a butterfly. It's a lesson in observation. Children notice that the scarf acts differently than other things they are used to throwing."

At age 3, the children are able to catch the scarf, but the biggest change happens at 4. That's when they can do more complicated things, like throw the scarf up and clap five times or touch their nose before catching it. A simple movement activity becomes a lesson in spatial awareness and fine-motor skills.

Research studies have shown that classroom juggling can increase hand-eye coordination, build sequencing skills needed for math and science, and improve fine-motor skills - even handwriting. Conley, whose classes usually juggle three times a week for 15 minutes, has seen some of these benefits already. "The older children have increased their coordination and pre-reading skills by following the scarves from left to right," she says.

Conley starts each juggling session by putting on some lively music and then bringing out her bag of neon pink, orange, and green scarves. The children immediately begin to wiggle in anticipation. Sometimes she plays a tape of music that is specifically for juggling and gives verbal directions. Often she calls out the directions herself. When she gives the kids' favorite instruction - to catch a scarf with their elbow - giggles erupt all over the room.

In addition to being fun and colorful, the activity allows children to work at their own pace and ability. "When I first started juggling with the children, I was afraid they would get discouraged if they weren't as successful as their neighbor," Conley says. "But the children enjoy it so much, they don't even notice. In fact, I would say that it helps boost their self-esteem."

All in all, the children are less skeptical of becoming jugglers than Conley herself first was. "Children don't approach anything with the idea that they can't do it," she says. "All it takes is a little practice." - Sarah Moore