This is the International Year of the Child, but I doubt that it is a better year for American children than 1932, say, or 1877. It is probably worse.

1932 was the year the Great Depression was at its worst, and the Children's Bureau reported that some half million children were tramping America's rails and highways.

In the International Year of the Child, double that number, more than a million runaway children, are roaming American cities. Their average age is 14.

1877 was the year the hit song "Where Is My Wand'ring Boy Tonight?," written and composed by a New Jersey minister, was tugging America's heartstrings.

Tonight, as every night, the tube will ask again: "Do you know where your children are?"

We know that too many of us don't know. We also know that barring an automobile crash, drunkenness, drug overdose or veneral disease, traunt children are safer today than they were in 1877.

Then as now, the runaways from the country, small town or suburb would join the children of the poor in the big city. And the worst of "The Shame of the Cities," as Lincoln Steffens exposed it early this century, was that so many children were diseased, starving and exploited.

"The prostitution of young girls was one of the unmentionable commonplaces of the Victorian city," Colin Ward writes in "The Child in the City" (Pantheon, $6.95). Ward reports that child prostitutes were so much in demand that grown whores made themselves up to look like children.

Boys were easier to deal with. Early in the 18th century, the London authorities rounded up little thieves and beggars and shipped them to Virginia.

Today, sanitation, nutrition, social services and the attitude of police and clergy have improved. We have child labor laws. Running away from home is less of a risk. But that is not likely to be the reason more children seem to run away from affluence than used to run away from poverty.

They run because they don't like Suburbia, the world America built especially for children. "It was built as a nursery," Colin Ward, a British writer on urban affairs, told a national conference on Urban Environmental Education in Washington a few days ago. Suburbia, U.S.A., is a place for growing Grade A children much as Idaho is a place for growing Grade A potatoes.

But something went wrong.

For one, True Education is missing. That is serious because education is the stuff of civilization.

As hundreds of autobiographical novels keep telling us, what previous (and civilized) generations really learned and what made the tedious business of growing up a little more exciting, was not taught in the classroom.

Those who grew up in the country, says Ward, got their True Education "wandering by the river banks and up through the woods to the hilltops, observing nature with a learning eye, and absorbing the wisdom of shepherd, farmhand, forester and farrier, and from the scary old hermit whose tumbledown shack is really a trove of rural lore and bygones."

Those who grew up in the city were down the street before the stern school mistress could say "class dismissed." They got their True Education making friends with all the merchants in the market, besieging the old lady in the corner candy store, beggging orange boxes from the grocer and stealing coal from the railroad yard.

When they became successful citizens, as they inevitably did, both country hero and rural hero would gladly confess that it was The School of Life, a.k.a. The School of Hard Knocks, which prepared them for success.

Our suburban children, alas, have neither country idyll nor city bustle to prepare them. Suburbia, says Colin Ward, "is really an intolerable place for those who neither nurses nor nurslings. To the adolescent or the young man or woman who is not involved in the family nest, it is a place of tedium and monotony."

It is also a place where a child learns little outside of school. As the child see it, one or both parents disappear in the morning to earn the family's brea in incomprehensible, unseen ways. Food comes in cans or cellophane. People are as homogenous as their subdivision homes. With no or little action there is no or little interaction.

Nearly everything the suburban child experiences - Cub Scouts or Brownies, music lessons, dancing class, or the Muppets - he experiences all by himself, as an individual, rather than as part of the family. No wonder the family is falling apart. No wonder the child gets rebellious as soon as puberty sets in and flees as soon as he or she can get a driver's license and a car.

The city is worse. The modern city has become too "opaque," to use Ward's word, for a child to explore. Besides, practically the only children left in the center city are recent immigrants from the South.

There are little if anything, in their homes to stimulate their imagination or curiosity - few pictures on the wall, few if any toys or utensils. Animals are rare. So are plants and flowers, or even trees. Ghetto children suffer "experiential starvation," says urbanist Kevin Lynch, meaning that they have few stimulating experiences.

What is worse, they are dreadfully isolated. They grow up far removed from the world of the successful and self-confident. They have no occasion to learn how to enter the mainstream because they never saw it, except distorted through the tube. Few ghetto children are able to use public transportation, or the telephone, or a library. Some steal simply because they do not know how to transact business legally. Few have the ability, let alone self-confidence, to get directions from a stranger.

Most American city children, says Ward, do not know how to use their environment, let alone learn from it. The city, he says, "seems to exist for one particular kind of citizen: The adult male, white-collar, out-of-town car-user." A vast literature on our urban schools, Ward adds, argues "not that the schools have let the children down, but that the children, by not being the ki nd of children the system was designed to educate, have let the system down."

The city child of a hundred years ago, it is true, was lucky if he could work long hours beyond his strength for barely adequate food and shelter. But at least, says Ward, "he was not trapped in a situation where there was nothing economically rational for him to do and where his whole background and culture prevents him from benefiting from the expensively provided education machine."

In the International Year of the Child, there is no more smallpox or child labor in America. But neither is there even the illusion that every American child can make it from rags to riches. Progress? "It depends whether you measure it in death rates or life expectations," says Ward.

Ward offers no solutions but at least a few new directions of constructive thought. The conventional demand for more playgrounds is not one of them. "Down with playgrounds! Free the children!" he quotes an American colleague. Fenced-in child ghettos, he says, sharpen the division between the worlds of adults and children. They further prevent the child from that True Education.

Ward is not asking that we redesign our streets, housing projects, gas stations or supermarkets to make them more fun for children to play in. He is asking that we teach our children how to get around in the street, where to find a museum, how to discover interesting places, to become part of the world.

Ward goes even further. "I advocate a sort of return to child labor," he told me.

Americans barely tolerate youngsters who try to earn some pocket money carrying grocery bags from the supermarket to the car. They would call the truant officer if their own kids were diving for pennies like the ragazzi in Naples. The shoeshine boy has gone out of business. Our police would arrest an under-aged and thus unlicensed street artist, although Edith Piaf was not the only prominent entertainer who started a career on the sidewalk.

The Horatio Alger days were tough and the knocks were hard. But the kids, I think, were happier than they are today.

At least no one asked them if they were capble of "meaningful social relationships."