Summertime, for many kids, means lots of hours spent playing video games and watching television.

It's important, however, that children fill some of their vacation time keeping up their reading skills.

Beginning readers especially can lose a significant amount of the vocabulary they have learned if they don't read during vacation. Specialists recommend that beginners read 15 minutes a day during the summer months.

"Kids who read as few as six books during nonscholastic months maintain or actually gain in reading skills" says Maria Salvadore, coordinator of the children's service for D.C. Public Libraries.

The challenge for parents is to motivate their kids to read without making them feel like they are being forced to do so. Fortunately, summer reading can be encouraged with an attitude that is more relaxed than during the school year. The trick, say teachers and children's librarians, is to keep it light, let kids choose their own books, and forget about keeping pace with or improving reading levels.

"Parents should let their kids read books that are fun," says former high-school English teacher Nancy Landon. Now a children's book buyer for Potomac's Toys Etc., she adds, "Parents too often get tied up with school summer reading levels. Everyone -- including kids -- wants a good beach reader."

Reading teachers agree that vacation reading should be just that -- a break from the rigors of the school year, a time for kids to choose their own books, and to read at their own pace.

"You want children to read and write over the summer, but not as part of a formal program," says Terri Smith, a reading specialist at Crossfield Elementary School in Herndon. "Any kind of reading choice is okay -- it can be a magazine; I don't even have a problem with comic books -- as long as it has print on it. The idea is to develop lifelong readers, to get kids to find out that it's fun to read."

The logical place to start is at your local library, and all the area systems are running summer reading programs that encourage kids to have fun with books. Libraries in every area jurisdiction except Fairfax County, working in conjunction with the Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG), have joined in sponsoring the "Summer Quest" program, now in its ninth year of operation. Fairfax County is sponsoring its own similar program called "Summer Reading Club."

This year's Summer Quest theme is "Wild With Books," and the program uses posters, stickers, certificates and "Vacation Video" magazine, provided by WETA, as incentives to young readers. In addition, beginning this month, libraries are sponsoring puppet shows, storytelling, children's theater and other events designed to bring books to life. Kids who sign up receive a "passport" and then get a sticker for every book they read in eight different categories. At the end of the summer, libraries hold special closing ceremonies and award certificates to participants. The Fairfax County program pursues the same goal, it's theme being "Reading Is Cool," using the California Raisins as the program's mascots.

According to COG, 48,000 children took part in last year's Summer Quest, a 20 percent increase from the year before. The program is for children entering first grade and up.

"We start getting calls in April from parents asking when Summer Quest will begin," says Salvadore. "There has been a significant increase in the number of older children (ages 11 and up) participating, reflecting an increasing number of children who grow up attending Summer Quest," she says.

Parents can make reading fun at home, too, following some of these suggestions from teachers and librarians:

Let the child choose. "Don't be critical of their choice," says Phyllis Kaufman, a reading specialist at Farmland Elementary School in Rockville. "When reading independently, children may choose a book below their instructional level. The parent doesn't have to play teacher. When adults pick books for pleasure, they rarely choose a book on philosophy."

Take advantage of the variety of books available. There has been an explosion in the children's publishing field and it is almost impossible not to find a book to meet a child's taste. "Find out what the child likes to read about. What are his interests outside of books? Help him find books on those topics," says Terri Smith.

A great source is in the nonfiction area. When Nancy Landon started buying children's books 12 years ago there was little choice in this category. "I was so tired of Helen Keller biographies," she says. "Now there are biographies on subjects ranging from Dolly Parton to Winnie Mandela." And there are books on science, sports, and history that children will find intriguing.

Incorporate summer activities into reading topics. "If you're planning a trip, check out travel and information books on the area you are going to," says Connie Freeman, children's librarian at George Mason Regional Library. "If a child is involved in a particular activity, such as tennis or swimming, find books on a famous tennis star or swimmer. Look for ways to tie in whatever summer activity you are doing with books and reading," says Freeman.

Read to your child. If your child will not pick up a book and read, then read to him. Reading aloud to children is a good way of introducing them to different styles of writing. It helps develop vocabulary by enabling children both to ask the reader what words mean and to figure out the meanings of words through the inflection in the reader's voice.

Have your child write, too. Reading specialist Smith "can't separate reading and writing," the two are so closely connected in building language and vocabulary skills. She suggests parents encourage their children to keep summer journals and to write letters to friends who are away at camp.

Let kids read in bed. Frequently, if you tell reluctant readers they can either read a book for 10 minutes or go right to sleep, they'll go with the book.

"As long as children keep reading, the message will come through that you can lose yourself in a book, that it can be better than a TV show, that it's stimulating, imaginative and fun," says Landon.