Preschooler Jeremy Maxwell, 5, felt trapped in the strict routine of his traditional day-care center. The emphasis was on learning to read and count.

His mother, Karen Maxell, an arts education specialist, worried about her son's sagging spirit. "He came home saying he didn't want to go back to school," she recalls, "that he didn't get to do things his way. At first, I thought it was just another childhood complaint. But he kept saying it, every day."

Jeremy would bring home ditto sheets, she recalls, toss them into her lap and mumble, "Here's what I did today," and then sulk away. He spent hours drawing pictures.

So, after six weeks, she took Jeremy out of the school and enrolled him in the Columbia Heights Children's Center, a nonprofit preschool that has taken the unusual -- and bold -- step for the last three years of teaching entirely through the arts.

He's been there since November, 1979. "Now he can't wait to get to school," his mother says.

Karen Maxell has also become the administrative assistant at the center.

In the patchwork world of day-care centers, Columbia Heights is the perfect design for some. Its extensive use of the arts sets it apart from most Washington child-care centers, which range from babysitting cooperatives to tightly structured Montessori schools.

"columbia Heights has been one of the most innovatiive schools in incorporating the arts," says Bobbie Blok, director of the Washington Child Development Center.

"Day care in Washington is mostly traditional," says early childhood specialist Faye Coleman. "But the Columbia Heights approach is certainly different."

Day care has come a long way in the last generation, Blok says. A decade or so ago, it was seen as a crutch for welfare mothers, but as increasing numbers of middle-class mothers entered the job market, it became a necessity.

"now it's seen as an educational tool," she continues. "It's part of the family-support system. And as more parents enter the work force, the types of day care are being more carefully scrutinized."

Coleman, who has studied the Columbia Heights program as part of the work she did for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland, says there are one or two similar centers in Minneapolis.

"But those in Minnesota are not diverse," she adds. "Columbia Heights is multi-cultural in staff and children, and it's got people from different social classes. The schools in Minnesota are middle-class."

The mix at Columbia Heights includes mostly low-income black and white Americans, Hispanics, Africans and Caribbean peoples, all reflecting the great wash of residents in the Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods.

Most day-care centers use the arts in a subsidiary way, an occasional exercise in watercoloring, singing once a week or putting on a year-end school pageant.But the idea at Columbia Heights is to teach entirely through the arts. The 50 children enrolled there encounter artistic activity -- music, dance, theater, the visual arts -- in every phase of their school day.

All day long they sing, dance, improvise skits, tell stories, do finger painting or silk screening -- under the guidance of teachers who have training in the arts or arts education.

Outside artists also lend their talents. Painter Sam Gilliam recently spent a day at the center.

Using 25 gallons of paint that Gilliam brought, the children plunged into acrylic painting in the morning, employing every imaginable implement -- rollers, scrappers, sponges, sticks and their own hands and feet.

"Look at Karen go," shouted the children as a 5-year-old dipped her feet into almost every can of paint and made zig-zag designs with her toes.

Gilliam watched with cheery surprise. "Seeing her is like witnessing a playground of the mind," he laughed.

That afternoon they silk-screened the acrylic paintngs, using a multitude of paints with twigs, leaves and paper towels. Then they stapled the silk screens into a collage and had a parade inside the center.

Other artists such as illustrator Lou Stovall and sculptor Yuri Schwebler have come there to teach the children. That's the way things go at the center. They have fun learning. Many times the children pick up ideas without realizing it.

The center's nutritionist and the children wrote lyrics about brushing teeth. The children enhoyed singing it and dancing to it so much that many begged their parents to buy them another toothbrush and toothpaste so they could brush at school.

All this is happening in a wing of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, 16th and Newton streets NW.

Director Marcia McDonell says, "We're not preparing children to be successful in test-taking. We're preparing them to make decisions."

Many parents have ben vocal in supporting the center. Carol Robertson, a musicologist at the University of Maryland, says she will keep her 5-year-old daughter, Vanessa, at the center for an extra year instead of enrolling her in public school.

"They [the children] all learn to read and write without being drilled," she says. "It's been a tremendous eperience for my daughter. There are certain ways of using the brain that can only be learned through the arts."

Dorothy Galloway, a program specialist at a consulting firm and mother of two daughters who have gone through the center's program, says, "It's extraordinary what they learned. They know how to bake bread and make peanut butter. They know how to read and do math. They make their own toys and prefer those over store-bought toys."

Galloway also says the pair, now 6 and 7, developed skills unknown to their 8-year-old sister, who didn't attend the center. "They know much more about nature, from being exposed to it in Rock Creek Park," she adds. "It's not all art."

But there are skeptics. Among them: Faye Coleman.

"I have mixed feelings about Columbia Heights," she says. "Their approach works exceedingly well, especially for low-income children, who are the offspring of working parents.

"It helps develop thinking skills. But there's an inconsistency between expectations of what preschool offers and what it actually offers. I don't know if they get children ready for the first grade.

"I examined 75 children in 10 different centers, and the Columbia Heights children were the most verbal. I attribute that to the artistic approach. But by the time they get to the first grade, they may have trouble adjusting. These kids will be questioning. They won't know about ditto sheets, and they may be bored.

"The problem is more on the public-school level than the preschool level. The school system should be more aware of what training the preschools give children."

But Rachel Bissessar says her 5-year-old son, Jock, easily made the adjustment to the first grade. Indeed, she says, he was advanced because of his day-care experience. "He had mixed with children of many ages," she notes. "He learned to share."

Dorothy Galloway says her daughter, Donna, 7, adjusted easily at Raymond School.

Their preschool teachers are optimistic. Teacher Tom Thompson, who has degrees in fine arts and public administration, says the children are "creative, ready to explore any kind of direction."

He holds up an abstract figure drawn by a child and says, "If Franz Kline saw this, he'd know exactly what was going on. I'm not good enough. I don't know."

Bonnie Atwater, an arts education specialist at the center, says, "Most child-care centers deal with lower levels of learning than we do. We've been criticized for opening so many doors. But children coming out of this environment will stimulate themselves.

"We go to Rock Creek Park, and we don't even call it a field trip. It's just part of our day. Once we were in the park, crossing a stream and walking over some rocks. Our children were doing it better than some 13-year-olds coming from the other direction. We just try to challenge these kids and make them do whatever they're capable of doing."

Despite the glowing assessments of the Columbia Heights school and the hope of its staff, the arts as a teaching method is still looked upon with great reservation. The Rockefeller Report, "Coming to our Senses," made the point in 1977 that the arts were regarded as unessential frills in most American elementary schools. Child-care centers weren't even mentioned.

The Columbia Heights school feels the reaction of this malaise: scant financial support (its curent budget is $200,000), unreliable parental involvement and a fluctuating staff because of low salaries.

But director McDonell is undaunted. "The most important thing is to be able to dream," she says, " and to find expression for that dream."