"SOUND AND SILENCE" at the Capital Children's Museum is a hands-on opportunity for both kids and grown-ups to explore the world of the hearing-impaired. And the emphasis here is on hands.

You can feel sound vibrating, pull strings to make the fingers of a giant wooden hand form sign-language letters, type in a message on a TDD-equipped telephone, print your name with hand-shape stamps, and learn to sign "I love you."

With a grant from the Hasbro Children's Foundation, the museum has created a stimulating exhibit where you'll learn a little about how your own ears work and a lot about how all of us communicate even without speaking. But, most important, you'll come away with some idea of the problems -- and solutions -- that hearing-impaired children and adults face.

A right turn from the entrance takes you into the first of three exhibit areas, "How the Ear Works." In the center of the room is a large-scale model of an ear. But opposite it is a far more intriguing approach to understanding how the ear works. Mary Donald, project director for the exhibit, calls it the "junk art" ear. It's a Rube Goldberg-type construction using plastic piping, a steel hammer, an anvil and a silver stirrup -- and it actually works. You can clap, shout or otherwise make noise (in a museum, no less -- what fun!) into a funnel-shaped pipe with a microphone hidden inside and watch your noise register on a meter. Families can finally -- and scientifically -- determine which of their children is the noisiest.

The most popular activity in this area, apart from making noise, is making a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) phone call. Instructions on the wall tell you how to dial the call, place the receiver on the TDD machine (a kind of mini word processor) and then type your message to whoever answers the TDD-equipped phone on the other side of the room. Your conversation appears on a narrow screen across the top of the TDD. How does a deaf user know the phone is ringing? The phone is wired into a lamp or light fixture that flashes on and off with each ring.

Nearby is a large TV monitor showing a continuous video of the popular kids' movie "Annie." But there's something different about this musical. No sound. It's a closed-captioned version with captions running along the bottom of the screen. Offstage sound effects appear in square brackets {Crash!} and song lyrics are bracketed by musical notes.

Most movies are available on video with closed captions, says Donald, but for broadcast TV programs, hearing-impaired viewers need to hook up a special telecaption receiver to their TV. Although there are no studies yet to prove it, Donald speculates that closed-captioned television has been a powerful motivation for hearing-impaired kids to learn to read.

Younger children can plop down at a work table here and make a fabric collage on the theme of "If you could only hear one thing, what would it be?" Meanwhile, older kids and grown-ups can take "The Unfair Test," which is probably the single most effective exhibit in the show. Don a set of headphones in a booth, listen to the clearly enunciated instructions, then, pencil poised, take a dictated spelling test listening to a voice with certain frequencies deleted to simulate what the words might sound like to a hearing-impaired person.

"This is very difficult. Try this!" one woman urged her husband, who was later seen emerging from the booth with his spelling test crumpled in his hand. (I managed a measly two correct words out of 10.)

You can also listen in on a tape of what a person wearing a hearing aid might hear in a noisy place. This exhibit points out that hearing aids do not correct hearing as glasses correct eyesight. All they do is increase the volume of those tones or frequencies the hearing-impaired person can already hear. It's not surprising, says Donald, that many kids are reluctant to wear their hearing aids in school, where amplified classroom hubbub can actually hurt their ears. It may also explain why grandma or grandpa sometimes turn down their hearing aids or tune out altogether.

The middle exhibition area focuses on "How We Communicate Without Speech." Three simple but fascinating experiments here show you how sound can be sensed through vibration. Push a button to activate a musical recording -- the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," of course -- and watch grains of sand bounce around on a stereo ear. (The bass notes really send them hopping.) Step on a rubber mat to activate a radio with a balloon attached to the speaker and feel sound vibrating through the balloon. Or press another button and watch sound waves rippling in a bowl of water and bouncing off the sides of the bowl. Put your finger in the center of the bowl and feel the vibrations right down to your toes and you'll understand how hearing-impaired kids learn to "feel" the music and dance.

A nearby videotape silently asks the question "What Am I Saying?" as a teacher from Gallaudet College wordlessly gestures "Quiet," "Go away," "Yes" and "No," giving viewers time to guess the command and making the point that so much of our communication is non-verbal. Six of the eight special exhibit guides here are hearing-impaired, so visitors will have to think up some new ways of communicating on the spot.

Across the room, a "See and Sign" videotape shows animated sign-language letters -- hand shapes, they're called -- turning into the printed letters they represent. And high on a shelf along one wall beckons the whole alphabet: a row of 26 bright pink gloves, cleverly wired and stuffed with cotton and styrofoam to show each letter's hand shape. On a table below, there are brightly colored gloved "hands" kids can manipulate into these positions. But if that proves too difficult, there's a large table where kids can spell out their names using large rubber stamps embossed with the hand shape for each letter.

The third part of the exhibit is "The Deaf Experience," featuring a show of 70 art works and photographs made by 50 hearing-impaired students, aged six to 18, from three local schools for the deaf. It's called my "My Eyes Have Ears" and one of the nice touches is that most of the artists are identified with a photograph so you can put a face to each name.

If your kids are artistically inspired by the show, they can sit down at one of three long tables and make a "stained glass window" using tissue-paper cutouts of the hand shapes for "I love you." Or they can color a sheet taken from a coloring book of hand-shape letters cleverly incorporated into simple ABC pictures.

Meanwhile, grown-ups can settle down on a bench in front of a nearby TV monitor and watch a videotape of hearing-impaired people talking about their own experiences, using sign language with voice-over interpretion. One engaging woman expressively articulates the shock some hearing people display when they find out she has a PhD, and other women talk about where they'd send a hearing- impaired child of their own for schooling.

After the kids have colored and glued to their satisfaction, leave the exhibit area and make a hard right turn through the cave tunnel to Storybook Theater. Every 15 minutes, there's a large-screen video presentation of one of five "Tales from the Attic" told wordlessly by a dynamic, young storyteller named Billy Seago of Sign-A-Vision in Seattle, Washington. Seago tells the stories in American Sign Language or in Signed English with captions for hearing-impaired audiences. For hearing viewers there's a voice-over narration but Seago's body language is so expressive you may not even listen.

SOUND AND SILENCE -- At the Capital Children's Museum, through January 31. Open 11 to 4 weekends, 10 to 1 weekdays. Live performances Thursdays and Fridays at 11:30 and 12:30. "Visual Tales" in Storybook Theater from 10 to 4:45 daily are included in the regular museum admission of $4. The museum is at 800 Third St. NE. Call 675-4150 Voice/TDD.