It was Saturday morning and it was cold outside. But the children were warm with laughter as they congregated in the courtyard of a Southeast Washington housing project to play their newest game.

"We're playing 'Cars,' " said Nattia Brown, 7, as she hopped aboard an abandoned grocery store cart and cradled Crickett, her dog.

"She made up the game so she gets to ride first," announced Terry Good, 9.

"Okay, let's play," commanded William Good who, at 8, wanted to lead the group.

As the cart to began to roll, the sounds of the children's excitement echoed off the project walls, obscuring the fact that they were poor.

Poor children, after all, are supposed to be sad and feel hopeless because the odds against making it out of poverty are so great. But don't tell that to these children.

"I'm going to be a policeman," said William Good, although he looked more like a fireman clinging to the side of the rumbling cart.

"I'm going to be a doctor," said his sister Dorothy, 7. "I like to help people," she said. For her, "Cars" was more like a game of ambulance driver, and she leaned into the curves as if headed to save every life in the city.

The day for these children had begun around 7 a.m. with the usual -- breakfast and cartoons.

"I had bacon and eggs," said William, "with sausage and grits." The other children, who had eaten variations on the same menu, rubbed their stomachs with satisfaction.

Then, bundled up, they went outside, and Nattia saw a grocery cart.

"Then I came up with this game and asked who wanted to play," she said.

"Then I said I would," said Buddy Williams, who is 4. Then the others said they would, too, and the next thing they knew they were playing "Cars."

Although their day had begun like that of many other children in the city, there would be striking differences in the things that they would hear and see as they went about their play. And much of this would affect whether or not they would realize their dreams.

Instead of seeing doctors as neighbors, for instance, they mainly saw young men congregating suspiciously on streets and in nearby parks.

While they see teachers in their school, the Washington Highlands Community School, none lives in the projects.

One could not help but wonder how long the good times would last in a neighborhood like this; how long would it take, for instance, before a little Will decided that he would rather break the law than enforce it.

There was a reality here that could not be denied. But the future of these children was not a given, not a natural perpetuation of crime and poverty by any means.

Right across the street from where the children play lives Bernadine Bryant, 29, who was recently honored for her paintings exhibited at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Bryant is from a family of 12, all of whom have graduated from high school and are now working.

But unlike the drug dealers or the teen-age mothers who so readily tell their stories, Bryant is shy, and her mother suspicious, so they pretend that Bernadine's accomplishment is "no big deal" and refuse to talk about it.

Yet, as the National Black Child Development Institute concluded in a weekend seminar on motivating achievement and counteracting negative stereotypes about black girls, Bryant's achievement is a big deal. Especially to the other girls in her neighborhood.

"We must find ways to expose girls to educational materials and experiences that will help them in their careers," said Evelyn K. Moore, executive director of the institute.

"With a phenomenal increase in the number of female-headed families and the general economic hardships faced by a growing number of two-parent households has come a heightened need to motivate black girls, from an early age through adolescence, to become knowledgeable about, interested in and qualified for high-paying, upwardly mobile vocations and professions," she said.

And the same is true for the boys. Despite statistics that show alarming numbers of infant deaths and health complications attributed to poverty, there are many children who still don't know they are poor, who don't see any limits to their lives simply because they are from a housing project or because their mother is on welfare.

They are excited about life, creative and imaginative. For them, the sky is the limit, and they should be helped to reach it even though they may start out in a discarded grocery cart.