Q. "My son is nearly 4 and very curious, and yet when we play 'school' he gets restless and forgets the order of his alphabet or even what some of the letters look like. My sister already has taught her little boy to read (he's 5), but mine won't even play with the letters and numbers on the refrigerator any more or work with the world map puzzle.

"He's perfectly willing to mess around in the kitchen when I'm trying to bake or to run wild in the supermarket, but he holds back whenever we play school games.

"Nursery school doesn't help either. The teacher just lets the children play at a water table or paint or listen to stories or go on 'expeditions' around the block.

"I feel so frustrated because I think school is vital and a child needs to get ready for it. I'm sure he would feel awful if he failed a competency test and couldn't get promoted.

"How can I give my child the kind of start he needs without acting like a pushy mother?"

A. It's very hard to push people without thinking that you're pushy.

Instead of wondering why your child is holding back, ask yourself why you need him to go forward.

It's normal to be pleased when your child reaches a new goal, but do you clutch when he doesn't? Do you feel good about yourself when he does well -- and bad when he does poorly?

Your child is not a mirror. He is his own person and he deserves to be accepted for his own abilities.

Every child needs this unconditional acceptance to feel self-confident. It is the single most important ingredient in a relationship, whether between husband and wife or parent and child. You can't truly respect a person until you accept him.

When you expect your child to reach your goals, or his cousin's goals, you're telling him that his own don't count very much. This is what he hears when you play "school." If it's not a "game" to you -- whether you call it a game or not -- it won't be a game to him."

This doesn't mean a child drifts through the preschool years. You're already giving him a lot of preparation for first grade without ever knowing it. You can even teach him some advanced concepts, as long as you're doing it for his good times, and not for your own reflected glory.

You think your child would like to know what the world looks like? Put a big map of the U.S. or the world on the wall and every time you get a post card from somewhere, let your child stick a star on the spot.

And if he runs wild in the supermarket he needs specific jobs to do: to find the beans or the peas by the picture on the can; to learn the difference between a rutabaga and a turnip. The more a child can decipher now, the better he will learn in school. You talk about messing around in the kitchen, but that is where he learns a sense of arithmetic. Even a 2-year-old can stand alongside his parent and measure the teaspoon of baking powder, the six ounces of butter, if you show him how.

Never mind that you're reading the recipe out loud as you go, getting out the ingredients and checking every measurement. He is finding out how numbers are a part of his life. In a couple of years these fractions become ordinary and he will measure three teaspoons to get a tablespoon; two tablespoons to get an ounce and realize that numbers, like words, should be used with precision.

A child can't learn how to read until he recognizes shapes well, for that's what letters are and the eye must be trained to remember them. When your child goes with you to the hardware store for nuts and bolts and nails of several weights -- and then sorts them into jars -- he will be getting this practice better than the child who moves 26 different shapes on the refrigerator door. It's fine to use these letters, but use them yourself. Get two extra sets and record what's needed at the store, saying E-G-G-S clearly as you put the letters in order. Your child will begin to imitate you when he's ready -- unless you push him. Then he will take much longer.

You explain prepositions by hiding a 10-cent prize, a cookie or a note that says, "Let's go to the zoo," and give your child a dozen directions to find it: near the sofa; beyond the door; against the wall; beneath the table. This is a game that will help him later for it takes concrete examples to teach a child how to decode prepositions, which are abstract. These are directions that might baffle or embarrass him at school.

If this kind of play seems odd to you, the techniques can be explained.

The trusted Home and School Institute, a national organization that helps parents and teachers work together, has set up a sample living room and kitchen at Harriet Tubman School, 13th and Kenyon Streets NW, under a special grant from the Department of Education. There is also a miniature gas station, a market and a hardware store so parents can turn every facet of a child's life into a learning experience without it being a contest.

As HSI director Dorothy Rich said, "When a child is sorting the silverware or the dishes, or folding the laundry, he is learning to read," for he has to be able to differentiate first.

Although this pilot program is set up for 20 learning-disabled children and their parents, an HSI staff member will explain their methods to groups of nursery school and PTA parents as well as teachers. Call 466-3633 for an appointment.

A teacher is limited to the classroom but a parent can draw on the whole world.