Thousands of children from military families swarmed over the White House's South Lawn Monday, posing with costumed characters like Peter Rabbit, watching magic shows and tossing painted eggs with giant spoons as part of the annual Easter Egg roll.

"All of you have dads and moms who have been defending America," Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, told the children. "We think your moms and dads are terrific."

Mrs. Cheney, who hosted this year's event, talked to the kids about American history while showing pages from her book, America: A Patriotic Primer.

This year's scaled-down event included about 12,000 parents and young children of active duty and reserve troops, fewer than half the normal public crowd of about 40,000. Due to security concerns, tickets were distributed through the Defense Department exclusively to military families.

President Bush, who hosted the previous two Easter Egg rolls, was not scheduled to return to Washington until after the event. Bush spent Sunday in Texas attending Easter services at the Army base at Fort Hood and spending time with his family.

Caitlin Annunziata, 8, from Cherry Point, N.C., said she was excited about winning second place in one of the morning's egg rolling races.

"My egg broke when I flinged it under the table," she said. Gripping a blue candy bunny in a shaking hand, she said: "I want to eat this badly."

Caitlin, her sister Hanna, 11, and her mother Michele, 32, traveled all night on a bus from North Carolina to Washington. The girls' father is a Marine warrant officer stationed in the Persian Gulf.

Michele Annunziata said she was happy that this year's event focused on military families.

"It really lets the people that are overseas know that we're being taken care of even though they're gone ," she said.

The White House egg roll has been a tradition since the mid-19th century. The celebration took place on the Capitol grounds until 1878 when it was moved to the White House by Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

During World War II, the Easter egg roll was moved away from the White House to the National Zoo.

This year, the White House presented 5,400 dyed hard-boiled eggs for the egg roll. Another 3,600 eggs were cooked for children to decorate.

Children also received souvenir wooden eggs designed by Eric Carle, author and illustrator of children's books including "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." The pink, blue and green eggs were printed with the signatures of the president and first lady and an image of a bouncing, juggling bunny.

Various Cabinet secretaries scattered across the lawn read to the children. Dozens of costumed characters including the Easter Bunny, Arthur and Clifford the Big Red Dog posed for pictures.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Vern Junker, 39, who works at the Pentagon, brought his two sons, 7-year-old Kyle and 4-year-old Erik.

Kyle said his favorite part of the day was "hugging my favorite characters like Winnie-the-Pooh and Spot."