WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton blew the whistle to kick off the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday and was immediately upstaged by a youngster near the front.

``I'm gonna be deaf,'' the boy yelled after the shrill blast.

The children, indeed, took center stage when the White House threw open its gates to thousands of them and the adults they brought along. They got full access to the South Lawn, which was alive with a carnival-like atmosphere.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, standing between two human-sized Easter bunnies, welcomed the crowd by saying that her husband ``loves the Easter egg roll nearly as much as anything he does all year long.''

The president agreed that the event makes all adults ``feel like children.''

``This is one of the most important traditions we have at the White House,'' Clinton said. ``It's really a day for children, it's a day for joy, it's a day for gratitude, and we're all very, very happy and proud to have you here.''

The festivities opened with one of the Easter bunnies giving the president a jellybean carrot. He waved it while reminding the children to eat their real carrots.

The Clintons disappeared into the White House after the brief welcome and some handshaking. That left the fun to the children, who were more interested in pursuing the larger-than-life Easter bunnies and cartoon characters that roamed the grounds.

One 6-year-old boy couldn't decide which activity was his favorite until he found out that there were POGs.

``You get POGs?'' Christopher said, excitedly looking for the booth with the popular cardboard bottle caps. ``Where do you get POGs? Over here?''

And then he was gone, dragging his mother behind him.

Others enjoyed magicians and clowns making balloon animals, storytellers and musicians and numerous games and prizes. One booth, near a giant mailbox, offered children the chance to write a letter to Clinton, telling him how they think he should change the world.

Still, the longest lines were for the traditional Easter egg hunt and, of course, the Easter egg roll.

At the hunt, children searched for some of the 25,000 wooden eggs that featured a silhouette of the White House and the signatures of President and Mrs. Clinton.

Other children, meanwhile, wielded slotted spoons as they struggled to carry or roll eggs across a finish line. Several of the 7,500 hard-boiled, easily tossed projectiles ended up in the crowd.

The Easter egg roll dates back to James Madison's presidency, when it was held on the U.S. Capitol grounds. Madison's wife, Dolley, suggested the celebration after learning that Egyptian children rolled colored eggs at the pyramids.

In 1878, President Rutherford Hayes and his wife, Lucy, officially moved the egg roll to the White House grounds. It has taken place there every year since, except during World War I and World War II. During the war years, it was held at the National Zoo and other locations.

But history was not on the minds of the children this year. Typical of the group was 4-year-old Lane Gary, who sat rapt in front of two jugglers, unwilling to be bothered by nosy questions, and her younger sister Ellie, happy and sound asleep in a stroller a few feet away.