Q. "I have a 2-year-old who knows the alphabet, can spell both her first and last name, as well as some simple words like 'stop' and 'exit.' She counts both in English and Spanish (I don't mean that she repeats numbers in order), and she speaks quite well. For instance, when we finish dinner she will untie her bib and say, I'm putting my bib here until tomorrow.'"

"She can tell you that a red light means stop, a green light means go, and a yellow light means caution, and that caution means to be careful.

"Also, ever since she was 1, she could put together jigsaw puzzles recommended for a child several years older.

"I, of course, think she's precocious, but one of my friends feels she's gifted. Is she? (I realize it's hard for you to tell without knowing her.)"

A. Your little girl is very bright indeed. And is she gifted? Quite possibly. Does it matter now? Not much.

Your child is child first, and she has the needs of a child -- for love, respect, good times, dicipline.

Gifted or not, she needs to go at her own pace, particularly in these early years. If she learns some school skills early and on her own, that's fine, but save the drudgery of numbers and letters for the elementary years. It's the only time in her life when rote work will be exciting.

Besides, she can't read until she's ready, and basically she won't be ready until her hands and eyes are in sync.

Children learn at different speeds -- and the speeds vary from subject to subject -- but the process is as orderly, as logical, as nature itself. As the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discovered, a child's ability to think must follow a certain sequence, the way he learns to sit before he can stand or walk.

You can, however, make it easier for your child to go from one step to the next.

She needs the chance to ask questions and to have questions asked of her. The more solutions she discovers on her own, the faster she learns, and the more creative these solutions will be. She also needs to let her mind wander -- an idea here, a fantasy there. Each possibility invites a different answer until she reaches the right one or combines several.

A child also learns best by doing not reciting.

Let her make the pecan pie today, stirring the cup of sugar; the cup of pecans, etc. She pours, she measures -- you can tell her how much and when -- and then you fill the shell. She turns on the oven and sets the timer -- you show her where -- and then she lowers it and sets the timer again.

This is the child who has made a pie and each step has helped her appreciate quantities and time, to say nothing of compliments.

Give her toys, but simple ones, for the brighter child, the more she wants to set up her own problems, solve them, and then create new ones. A big cardboard box is a truck, an ambulance or a submarine, but a big wooden truck is usually just a big wooden truck.

A sheet draped over a card table is a fort, a cave, a nest, a hideaway; a stepladder set up in the diing room is not just a ladder, but a mountain, or the biggest rocket in the world.

Now you're not going to win any housekeeping awards like this, and some visitors may think your child should be putting together a map of the world, but children have to invent work if they're going to remember it.

This philosophy, so well documented, is the thesis of a fine new book, "The Gift of Play," by Maria W. Piers and Genevieve Millet Landau (Walker, $9.95). It will show you how much seemingly foolish play teaches a child.

And for more information on the gifted, write The Council for Exceptional Children, 1920 Association Dr., Reston, Va. 22091, a 59-year-old group that encompasses all special children. They'll send you a packet of material.

It's when your child starts elementary school that you will need to monitor her skills, to see if she needs enriched or accelerated classes so she won't get bored.

And for parents whose extra-bright children are older, there's the first-rate talent search run by Johns Hopkins University.

The Baltimore univeristy is expanding its annual program to include seventh graders who have verbal gifts, as well as those with mathematical or scientific talents.

The university's Office of Talent Identification has sent applications to every public, private and parochial school in Washington, D.C., and 10 nearby states. Counselors are asked to duplicate the form and give it to any seventh grader who has scored in the top 3 percentile in math, verbal or language arts, in either achievement or aptitude tests. The entries, with a $6.25 processing fee, must be postmarked no later than Dec. 3.

If accepted, the student goes on to take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests on Jan. 24 (a $9.25 charge).

The top 5 percent will receive awards at the university, career counseling and have the chance to take summer courses in math, science, Latin, Greek, German, etymology and creative writing. For more information, call Linda Barnett, 301-338-8427.

The university also has a Young Scholars Program evenings and summer for any high-school senior with a B average or any student, past the seventh grade, who has a total SAT score of 1000.