Children's Studio School: A very small girl drifts about anenclosed area made of wooden blocks. She wears an inward look. Whispering to herself, she straightens up some toys on the floor, steps out of the enclosure to fetch her coat--your coat is a very important part of you when you're at a day-care center--and hangs it on the wall of boxes. Then she nestles into a cubbyhole she has made and, almost hidden from the world, reads her book in delicious solitude.

Fish's Friends are doing silkscreens. They are one of the school's three groups of 3- to 5-year-olds. The others are Moon Cavern and Sunshine Kids. A Japanese fish kite hangs on the wall. Five children are cutting out shapes from used computer paper. Frankie is making a horse.

"I'm gonna tell," complains Mahlet when someone swipes his scissors. He is Ethiopian and knows little English.

" 'I'm gonna tell,' that's all you can say," mutters Rose, who is 5 and towers over Mahlet. She is cutting out stars and moons. She is from Sierra Leone.

Frankie's horse has become a fish.

"The scissors are really good for eye and hand coordination," says Tom Thompson, the teacher, as he watches Asia arrange paper bits on the screen to depict a boy in a bathtub, his mother, a mirror and a lightbulb. Thompson has a master's in public administration from Yale, a year at Columbia Law, six years in the State Department and five years as an artist. He teaches art at Children's Hospital too.

Asia smears paint on the screen, squeegees it flat, peels off a sharp print of the bathroom scene. Now there is an argument in English and Spanish over who gets to go next.

"This was started in '68 as a regular day-care center," says director Marcia McDonell , "but it became art-centered in '77. We get our space at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church mostly free, and support comes from the parents and some from the D.C. Arts Commission. We have 11 teachers on the staff and interns from area colleges and schools."

Sometimes local artists drop by to draw inspiration, as Sam Gilliam said once, from the purity of child art. The kids learn dance there, too, and theater and sculpture and weaving and batik and cooking. They sometimes make their own lunch. There is video equipment financed by the city. Several rooms lead off the main room, and in various corners are little hide-outs and parachute caves and special places.

The children also take trips to museums, galleries, Rock Creek Park, theaters and construction sites, and they write or draw or act out what they found. They loved a crane they saw once, a great skinny arm in the sky picking up a load of bricks like a lady pouring tea.

Wall painting: "A Fast Cheetah By Tahj Drinkard, 5.

The hit of the school's exhibit, which recently closed at the Phillips Collection (and is now at Children's Hospital), was Ms. Junk, a bristling life-size creature made of toilet-paper rolls, Burger King boxes, pie plates, plastic tabs, a Pandee Freeze wrapper, Red Top tobacco, M&M's peanut-candy bags, cotton balls, bottle tops, pipe cleaners, yarn, gift bows, tape, playing cards, six-pack plastic holders, orange feathers, hair curlers, crepe paper--and wearing sneakers.

Later the kids drew pictures of her and wrote about her.

"I like to see her with Tom. He made her fun. She was standing on a little box that made her bigger than me. Her name is Junky Lady. Because she have all kinds of junk on it."--Leon.

Some drawings sport random capital letters around the edges. "This is an important sign," Thompson says. "It means they're ready to read. This is one reason we feel we can prepare a child through art for all those academic things at school."

Natonia White, 4, on her painting, "Lady Hollering": "It's a lady who's hollering at a man because he won't dance with her. He's dancing with another woman."