Defying the rules of typical Washington receptions, no one needed a glass of white wine and 20 minutes of small talk to get last night's Kennedy Center reception hopping. Most of the guests jumped immediately into the spirit of the occasion.

Possible reason: the average age of the guests was 5, and Peter Rabbit paid a visit.

Ventriloquist/author/conductor Shari Lewis and her famous hand puppet, Lamb Chop, were guests of honor at the boisterous reception. Lewis was presented with the Kennedy Center's annual Award for Excellence in recognition of her contribution to the arts and young people.

The reception marked the opening of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," a dance adaptation of the Beatrix Potter children's classic, and the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's seventh annual "Imagination Celebration" children's theater festival. It featured four productions this year.

As Washington's ubiquitous one-man band Bob Devlin provided clangorous renditions of "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" and "Old McDonald," more than 100 children danced, drew colorful animals on thoughtfully provided drawing boards, hugged stuffed bunnies and lambs, picked flowers, and gobbled up jellybeans, carrot cake and a 10-pound chocolate egg. Their parents, for the most part, stood quietly by, perhaps envying their children's social ease.

Lewis and Chop wore matching black off-the-shoulder gowns with red flounces. "You know, it's very hard for a sheep to buy clothes," said Chop. "The clerks look at you and tell you to grow your own." The puppet grew indignant when Lewis introduced her to the crowd as her supporting act. "Do you people realize that if it weren't for me, she'd be standing up here talking to her hand?"

"A daily exposure to the arts does prepare our youngsters for a creative approach to everything they'll face in daily life," Lewis said. "They can even become politicians with fresh and bold new visions. I only mention this because in these days of massive cutbacks in arts education, it behooves every one of us to fight for our youngsters' rights in this area.

"There are four R's in right brain training," Lewis said. "The fourth R is the arts."

An incongruous guest was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who accompanied Lewis and her husband, publisher Jeremy Tarcher. Dodging exuberant knee-high children, Nader said he enjoyed the show, but added with a laugh, "People keep asking me what I'm doing here."

Luigi Zaninelli, composer of "Peter Rabbit," stood out of range of Magic Marker-wielding kids, accepting compliments on his score. Zaninelli said he wrote the music in 1975 for his two youngest children. "My real problem is that all these kids have grown up on Bugs Bunny cartoons and are expecting cartoon music," said Zaninelli, who has just completed a new work called "The Little Tin Soldier." Zaninelli said he likes writing music for children because "they believe it, they buy it, and they don't ask those stupid questions, like 'Who is it influenced by?' "