Latchkey kids: We worry about their fears, we worry about their safety. We debate the age at which it's appropriate to leave them alone. We develop survival skills courses to help them handle kitchen fires or broken plumbing at home, "warm lines" to ease their loneliness and anxiety.

We ask, are they safe? Are they doing their homework? Are they staying out of trouble?

Several child development experts think we are asking the wrong questions.

"When we ask, 'Is harm being done to these children,' we obscure the question, 'Are opportunities being lost?' " says Joan Scheff Lipsitz, director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which studies and provides information on children aged 10-15.

Lipsitz sees more and more of these children "spending the after-school hours unsupervised and uninvolved in their communities at a time in their lives characterized by high energy, a striving for self-definition and a need to prove their personal competence in a variety of areas."

"We are reinforcing the isolation of youngsters," she says, with articles and advice that emphasize safety and teach children to fend for themselves. "Self-help manuals, latchkey survival kits -- maybe that's necessary, but is this the best we can do?"

Children need more than to be safe and unafraid. They need to develop their interests and talents, build their self-esteem and identity, spend time with other children and adults who are not their parents, learn to grow in independence and responsibility. They may get some of these things in school, but, as Joan Bergstrom points out in School's Out -- Now What? (Ten Speed Press), almost 80 percent of a child's waking time -- an average of more than 4,500 hours per year -- is spent out of the classroom.

Bergstrom, chairman of the Professional Studies Division in Early Childhood Education at Boston's Wheelock College, believes, like Lipsitz, that out-of-school time is "a marvelous opportunity for children to learn. They love to experiment, to work at things, to become good at them. Activities allow for kids to be resourceful. It matters that we help children think about their time after school, on weekends and vacations."

Whether children and early adolescents are in full-time day care, go home to an adult, or are latchkey kids, they can take advantage of after-school time to expand their interests and develop skills. The D.C. area offers a wide variety of after-school programs and classes (free, and for varying costs), in which children can learn everything from applying for a Social Security card to creating a fish in papillote with spring vegetables.

In Alexandria, for example, George Washington and Hammond Junior High School students can participate in a joint City Youth Services and school board-initiated Jobs Club that trains them in employment skills and places them in odd jobs around the city. Weekly meetings, often with guest speakers, cover topics like job interviews, communication skills, the parts of a paycheck and the importance of good grades.

Counselor Carolyn Lewis, the sponsor at GW, says both schools coordinate requests so that kids are placed within walking or bicycling distance of jobs, such as polishing cars for the Sheriff's Department, distributing fliers, mowing lawns and acting as receptionists. The Jobs Club is so popular that this year nearly 300 GW students applied.

At L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, 10 to 15 year olds can participate in Young Gourmet Cooking Classes, which teach specific techniques like boning chicken and making dough. Administrator Patrice Dionot says classes were switched -- because most families preferred it -- from Saturday mornings to weekday afternoons. "The children can get here from school, make the food, package it up, and take it home for dinner," a bonus for working parents.

After-school programs also can give early adolescents a chance to become involved as volunteers with their communities. Camp Fire and Scouts both involve kids in service projects. In Prince George's, Arlington and Fairfax counties, the Red Cross Clown Corps trains 13 and 14 year olds in makeup, costume design and other clownly arts, and sends them out once a month to entertain at day-care centers, hospitals and nursing homes.

The Alexandria Red Cross uses 14-year-old volunteers in a youth Tutorial Program operated one day a week at each of four sites. The program draws weekly from 40 to 120 elementary school children, many of them latchkey kids who have the chance to improve their school work and spend an afternoon with other children.

Since transportation is a perennial problem, the Red Cross Youth Tutorial operates at schools and recreation centers, which are relatively easy for children to reach. The Bowen and Urban YMCAs in the District also moved their after-school programs into the schools. Bowen's Gra-Y Program meets twice a week at three elementary schools, with children electing officers and planning their own activities. The Urban Y offers dance, flag football and tutoring at several schools.

Montgomery County's Department of Recreation offers after-school programs at schools in its eastern area, and starts programs late so that children bused to other neighborhoods will have time to return home and walk to the programs. Where children cannot walk or take public transportation to activities, program directors suggest car pools, so that if classes end at 4:30 or 5, a parent might arrange to leave work early only once every three or four weeks.

The benefits of attending after-school programs include the chance to be with an adult who is neither a parent nor a teacher -- who can listen, coach and counsel.

"I find it shocking that we must remind ourselves that adults are essential to the healthy development of early adolescents," says Lipsitz. She adds that, "even if parents were home, they cannot -- nor should they -- be the only source of entertainment and information for their children."

"Children who are 10 to 14 need independence and responsibility for themselves, and they also need someone to be responsible for them. It's not an either/or situation, it's both," says Judith Rosen, director of Fairfax County's Office for Children. "They need to talk, they need support, they need someone to call on, not just for emergencies. That doesn't mean they need an adult there all the time."

Fairfax's Office for Children developed a flexible Family Day Care Check-In Program for children who seem too old for traditional day care, who want to be on their own some of the time, but still require adult supervision.

The Reston Children's Center and the Potomac Council of Camp Fire now both run programs where children can check in after school with a family day-care provider in their neighborhoods, then leave to participate in activities, play with friends, or spend time in their own homes. Children and their parents plan a weekly activities schedule. Both programs provide some transportation to activities and also arrange trips to museums, roller skating rinks and other special events.

The Check-In Program acknowledges the fact that many early adolescents are in transition, and some need more guidance and support than others, while all need a measure of independence. It also encourages children to participate in activities and develop interests beyond the confines of their homes.

Lipsitz says that recent studies suggest minority and poor children tend to use community resources more than middle-class children. "Because the neighborhood is perceived as being safe, and because middle-class parents see themselves as raising children in enriched environments, they are not reaching out to whatever services and opportunities there might be in the community.

"Middle-class parents," she says, "are becoming more complacent about this issue. The more kids are left alone, the more acceptable it's becoming to leave kids alone."

In fact, many community centers and other groups that provide after-school programs show no overwhelming increase in the number of participants. Terry Clukey, supervisor of the Gunston Center in Arlington gets a lot of latchkey kids, but cites a constant attendance figure over the last few years of an average of 80 children a day.

Bob Daniel, director of Montgomery County Recreation Department's northern area, believes that overall there is a decrease in demand for programs because of the rising number of latchkey children, whose parents worry about the timing, cost and travel to and from activities.

After-school programs often compete, of course, with at-home attractions like VCRs and television, or with shopping centers where 13 and 14 year olds begin to flock. Another reason families may not use the programs: Early adolescents sometimes refuse to go. Connie Elbisi of the Reston Community Center and Lucy Hitchcock of the Audubon Naturalist Society both note a decrease of interest in programs among older children.

"Most kids over 10 are busy with other things," says Hitchcock, "and would resist if their parents were signing them up."

Some child-development experts, however, maintain that parents -- despite the resistance -- should take responsibility in helping their kids plan and participate in some activities. School's Out author Bergstrom suggests parents talk to their children -- using their intuitive knowledge of them -- to figure out what they genuinely care about, and guide them in developing those interests.

She considers three to seven hours per week a minimum time to devote to one, two or even three interests, depending on the age and maturity of the child. Or families might simplify their arrangements, she suggests, by concentrating on one activity, looking for programs within easy reach, or even finding a friend, babysitter or professional who can teach a special skill to one or a group of children in their homes.

"I think of children's time as their currency," says Bergstrom. "Your child and mine have the same amount of time at age 9. Out-of-school time is an asset that can slip away like coins through a ripped pocket. What matters to our children now and for the future is how we help them shape it."