There's a new buzzword making the rounds of the $12-billion kiddie market: "educational."

It's an old term, actually, except for one big difference: Now, it sells.

In the nation's toy stores (there are about 150,000 products on the market, 3,000 or 4,000 of them new) even old standbys are sporting the new label.

"Last year, it was sold as a toy. This year, it's being sold as an educational item," observes a wry Scott Goode, owner of Lowen's toy store in Bethesda, one of the specialty retailers geared to this market. Lowen's is planning a separate "educational" section when it moves back to its former Wisconsin Avenue site in the spring.

"Everyone's jumping on the bandwagon," sniffs Lane Nemeth, founder and president of Discovery Toys, an 8-year-old line of "educational" imports whose direct home sales were up 40 percent last year.

"Now what manufacturers are doing is they won't even put a toy on the market unless they can imply it's educational. It's pretty much universal," proclaims pediatrician/author Burton White, who has done extensive study of the infant-through-age-3 toy field -- part of the preschool market traditionally dominated by learning toys.

Reasons for the boom in educational toys run the gamut, from a diminished faith in public schooling to the rise in yuppiedom; from the current baby boomlet to the surfeit of get-them-smart-quick pop child-care books. There's also the snob appeal of a toy line heavy with foreign imports, sometimes finer crafting and frequently higher prices.

"We're in a very conservative society right now," offers Donna Datre, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, a trade association. "Classically, toys reflect what goes on in adult society . . . People like labels in our society. We saw that with designer jeans and designer clothes. Many people don't look beyond the label."

But just what is an educational toy? No one -- happily for the toy industry -- is exactly sure.

According to various experts, an educational toy:"

*Helps the kind of things you learn in school . . ." (Brian Sutton-Smith, psychologist and education professor at the University of Pennsylvania).

*"Traditionally is . . . a toy made by an educational supply house like Judy, Playskool Educational, Educational Insights, and sold to schools and educational stores . . ." (Scott Goode of Lowen's).

*"Is probably any toy a child really enjoys and plays with a lot . . ." (Burton White).

Where does this leave the consumer? Some say, confused.

Is Barbie Doll educational? Masters of the Universe?

"Almost every toy is educational," argues Datre, "because play is very important to children. It's often been called a child's work. Maybe the first toy you think of for the youngest child is a crib mobile. When the baby is looking at it, even before she can make out shapes, she knows something is there. Theoretically, that's educational . . . I don't know if purists would consider a doll or a teddy bear an educational toy, but in essence it is. Children might tell a doll a lot of things they don't tell you and me. It helps them exercise their imaginations."

It's a tidy argument. If you can't define a category, you can't define its growth. TMA can quote annual sales jumps in action figures and dolls (up 124 percent), nonelectronic games and puzzles (up 103 percent), preschool items (up 41 percent) and other categories in 1984 -- a banner year for the industry -- but there are no hard figures for "educational toys." They may be big business, but in terms of market analysis, they don't exist.

In terms of promotion, however, it's a different story.

Here's what Hasbro's fall press release said about its Transformers, the No. 2 toy on the market today:

"Transformers are puzzles in solid geometry. Some authorities believe their complex, hidden linkages challenge the mind's ability to think in three dimensions. In terms of the toys' educational implications, Hasbro is currently researching the phenomenon of why kids are more adept than adults at figuring out how Transformers work."

Lowen's Goode laughs in response. "That's bull. Sure, they could find a child psychologist to say there's some educational value in the hand manipulation and dexterity it takes to maneuver from one form to another. Sure, so does picking up a bat or a pencil -- but that doesn't mean it's educational. There's not a child or mother in this country who buys a Transformer for its educational value."

Hasbro's Alfred Carosi, vice president of marketing, admits the promotional language -- since changed, he says -- was "a bit of a stretch." It was put together, he guessed, before a company survey of several hundred parents failed to show children's abilities changed after play with the toys.

"We don't attempt, as a corporation," says Carosi, "to hang educational labels on our packages if they don't warrant it. You won't find labeling on Transformers that this is an educational toy for your child."

If manufacturers are tripping over themselves to apply the term, parents -- particularly in higher income areas -- are doing some tripping to find it.

In a recent Good Housekeeping survey, 86.5 percent of mothers with children under 12 called "good learning skills" critical in their children's play. The importance they placed on toys' "educational" value (9 on a scale from 0 to 10) outweighed all other measures of their children's playthings.

The problem is that the toys, cassette tapes and electronic teaching games commonly viewed as educational aren't intended for parents. And children often have some very different ideas.

Wilbur Wright, who imports Create-It Educational Construction Sets, acclaimed this fall by Parents magazine, Ms. and Woman's Day, agrees: "Toy manufacturers have to be concerned about two things: What a child will like and what will sell to parents, and those two things don't track together very well."

For a child, the label "educational" can be the kiss of death.

"They're boring," pronounces a gum-chomping, 9-year-old Jimmy Milkey of Potomac, indicating an electronic quiz game as an example. He was more interested in a Sharkmatic cap gun and other contemporary boyhood staples: G.I. Joe, GoBots, Transformers, Godaikins and Voltron.

Kafi Hunt, a Silver Spring sixth-grader and Barbie Doll aficionado, was also uninterested in compromising her playtime.

"When I play, I'm not interested in the learning part of it. When you play, it means the word play." When playing with dolls, she says, "We just make it up as we go along. It's like improvisation."

Such role-playing, while an important aspect of play, is generally not addressed by educational toys. Kids who enjoy creative arts may be more likely to share their parents' enthusiasm.

TV and peer pressure also affect children's response.

"The things she wants most are those she sees advertised on TV -- expensive animals and dolls -- that don't teach her skills. After a while, they just get tossed aside," says Shelley Dreifuss of Burtonsville, voicing the frustration of millions, about her 5-year-old daughter Jessica.

Penny Power, a consumer magazine for children aged 8 to 14, found that one way to make children less susceptible to TV marketing was to invite them to its offices each year to test 10 best-selling new toys.

"One of the neat things to look for," says editor Charlotte Baecher, "is how long the fun will last. At the beginning of the day, the kids sit with the toys and rate them. Then they play with them for a day and rate them again. There's always a shift. What comes out of it is that what makes some toys more fun than others is if there's a challenge, if a toy is flexible, if it can be used in more than one way, if kids can use their fantasy . . ."

Many parents feel it's not worth the battle to convince children of the alleged superiority of one plaything over another.

"You can't force toys down children's throats," says a mother and executive for a national toy retailer who asked that her name be withheld. "If a child is interested in science, and you give her one of those educational science toys, then she is going to be interested, but if not . . . there isn't going to be anything you can do.

"If you remember, when we grew up, before toys became as refined as they are in terms of labels and sophistication, there were always a couple of kids who collected butterflies and had rockets and had microscopes, and then there were all the rest of the kids . . . Human nature hasn't changed all that much . . ."

Part of the appeal of educational toys, others suggest, may be self-deception.

"It's the habit of this century," says psychologist Sutton-Smith, author of Toys as Culture (Gardner Press, $24.95), "to idealize play and call it education. We like to think of play as activities of intelligence, whereas it's really caricature and nonsense and hilarity and pretending to be monsters and a lot of things we find a nuisance about children because they're active and cause trouble . . . Toy people can exploit that weakness in the parent's mind that wants play to be positive and constructive and intelligent . . . and denies it can be something else."

Guilt also enters into the equation. In a "purely American phenomenon," says the retailing executive, "people want the best or what they believe or "Toy manufacturers have to be concerned about two things: What a child will like and what will sell to parents. And those two things don't track together very well." -- Toy importer Wilbur Wright have been told is the best for their children's development . . . But we don't think we're buying toys. We think it's really necessary. In fact, many parents even worry: If they don't buy a toy, will their child be held back?"

Burton White, director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass., meets the question head-on in his newly revised classic, The First Three Years of Life (Prentice Hall, $16.95). "I feel confident in telling you that -- to do a superb job of educating a child in the first three years of life -- you do not have to buy a single so-called 'educational' toy . . . Do not worry about the child next door who has every educational toy ever manufactured; he has no advantage over your child. It just is not so."

While White gives generally high marks to Johnson & Johnson and Fisher-Price, he contends that many other learning toys are not age-appropriate and their educational value overrated. "Very little out there has ever received any serious research support," he maintains. "I told you how they're tested: you give a prototype to an executive's son." Pressed to have new products out each year, he says, manufacturers "can't afford the time it takes to do testing properly." (Mattel, whom White singled out for praise on safety and durability, insists testing is a good deal more extensive, with about 60,000 interviews a year on its entire product line.)

Some good toys for the under-3 set?

Advises White, "The single most played with toy from 1 year to 2 years is a plastic beach ball. That's the best single toy I've ever known . . . Another is books with stiff pages when a child is about a year old. The toy people market cloth books. They're useless . . ."

Good toys for older kids? Toys that encourage creativity, say experts, such as clay, blocks and construction sets.

And what's a parent to make, meanwhile, of the exploding educational toy market? Whatever he or she wants, says Toy Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Datre.

"This is a supply-and-demand industry. You can see this by the things that are successful. The manufacturer is trying to give parents the things they want." Exploitation, she says, is not at issue. "No one's telling you you have to buy."