Q. My daughter, who is nearly 3, is an only child (and on her father's side, an only grandchild). She is the center of attention at Christmas.

My husband and I enjoy our Christmas mornings with her but are concerned about how much she receives, especially since her birthday follows in January. We try to be sensible about presents, but it is hard to control the giving of grandparents, even great aunts. Our daughter will give small gifts to her neighborhood playmates, but could we do something on a broader scale to help her learn the spirit of giving? Is she too young to absorb anything meaningful from bringing small gifts to Children's Hospital or an orphanage? What age would be appropriate for such a venture? Should it be a seasonal ritual?

A. The spirit of giving is one of the ways we teach our children to be generous. You're wise to encourage it.

Giving to playmates is a good idea, but one that should be kept firmly within bounds. (It might bring a harvest of gifts in return.) These gifts should be clearly inexpensive, preferably a drawing or some cookies your child has helped you make. Playmates are important in your child's world, but there are so many other children who need to be remembered more.

The Children's Defense Fund reports more than 12 million needy children in the country, and more than 87,000 live in the Washington area.

Giving to the less fortunate may baffle your child (at this age, what doesn't?) but she can begin by helping you carry canned goods to a church, by filling a basket for a shut-in, by choosing a gift and dropping it at the front desk of Children's Hospital, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities or Family and Child Services. Deliver them unwrapped, so the staff can choose the toy best for each child.

Most orphans and other needy children now live in foster homes. For the Love of Children--one of Washington's best regarded institutions -- is collecting new toys for them. Like most institutions, FLOC needs year-round help: bedding, household goods, cooking utensils, baby clothes, money. 1711 14th St., NW, 462-8686.

Secondhand toys around the house could be cleaned, repaired and taken to clinics and hospitals, day-care centers, church nursery schools. Your child is probably too young now--when sharing possessions is hard--but in a couple of years she'll be ready to help you.

There are many large and small agencies, in and out of the United Way umbrella, that need help, as well as new Christmas toys. Among some of the lesser known:

Jubilee -- Church-sponsored, volunteer-oriented organization that provides emergency help, medical services, job referrals, Montessori schooling and subsidized housing to low-income families who do maintenance work in return. 1750 Columbia Rd. NW (332-4020).

Community of Hope -- Emergency shelter, law office and health program that works with large, low-income families. 1417 Belmont St. NW (232-9022).

City Lights -- Special school to prepare emotionally troubled young people, age 12-22, for the working world. Needs sports equipment, school supplies, games and computer software. 7 New York Ave. NE (682-0818).

As your daughter gets older you can help her learn to give by increasing her empathy in more abstract ways. You do this most by the intangibles -- like respect -- that you give her. This means you listen to her as thoughtfully as you would to an adult and respond to her needs when you can, so she grows up to do the same with others. You also help your child be a more generous person by her books and records.

Gary Rosen and Bill Shontz, who gave a family concert here recently, create splendid songs about feelings and help a child to express them: some of the best kind of giving and often the hardest. Their first record was "Rosenshontz Tickles You," last year's winner of the American Library Association's Notable Children's Recording; their new one is called "Share It!" Send $8 for each record to Parent Education Project, 8227 Crown Court Road., Alexandria, Va. 22308, or call Jane Arenberg, 360-4953, to arrange a pick-up at the Alexandria Community Y.

And then there is Sweet Dreams for Little Ones by Michael G. Pappas (Winston Press), a charming collection of "let's pretend" stories that help a child imagine herself in 18 different settings. They're geared to building a child's self-esteem as she learns about being a caring sort of person. $11.20, Winston Press, 430 Oak Grove, Minn. 55403.

There's even a book to help a child care about her world: The Kids for Nature Yearbook: 1983 produced by the Sierra Club (Charles Scribner's Sons, $4.95), available at many area bookstores.

By the time a child is 8, she deserves those somewhat maudlin favorites of our foreparents: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Penguin, $3.95) and The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (Penguin, $3.95). Parents should give these books, however, only if they're also willing to give their time to read aloud. The language and pace is so old-fashioned that it takes a parent's voice to keep a child's interest.

Barcroft Books at Bailey's Crossroads, among others, recommends the Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin, $5.95) to help children and parents get the most out of this experience. The nightly chapter becomes the springboard of many discussions. While Alcott dissected growth and grief in a proper New England family, Dickens used a small child to reflect the big picture and probably did more to change conditions for the poor than any other writer. It's important that today's children know how much people can need . . . and how much we have learned to give.

Parents usually are pretty good about giving books on their own heritage, but if we really want our children to understand people, we want them to know what the people of other heritages have endured.

There is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Mildred D. Taylor (Bantam, $1.95) and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, also by Taylor (Bantam, $2.95). And there is the almost overwhelming Diary of Anne Frank (Modern Library, $5.95), which no child could ever forget. Nor should they.

Finally there is an award-winner in Japan, newly published here: Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki (Morrow, $12.50). It is a simple account, in words and pictures, of Aug. 6, 1945, of the day the world didn't end. Although childishly written and primitively drawn in the manner of a 7-year-old, it is on a level of Anne Frank, which means that it's also too powerful for a child under 12. For the rest of us, it's too powerful to ignore.

You ask if your child is too young to learn about giving. A child is never too young. In the beginning she learns to give a present. Later she adds her heart.