IF YOUR CHILDREN think art consists of musty old pictures hanging on a wall, maybe it's time to take them off the Mall and into some real art studios.

The Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Old Town Alexandria is a home-away-from-home for 150 living, breathing artists. It's a beehive of activity where children can see painters, potters, printmakers, sculptors, fiber and glass artists -- even a musical instrument-maker -- at work.

"The difference between a museum and an arts center is that here, children can see the creative process at work," says Karen Plante, program director of the Friends of the Torpedo Factory.

The Friends have developed four self-guided family tours to create a sense of adventure for children as they set off to uncover the mysteries of art.

"The art center is a large place, and children may feel a bit overwhelmed when they first walk in the door," Plante says.

Three of the self-guided tours will give children and their parents a structure for exploring the vast reaches of the Torpedo Factory; free "Discovery Sheets" outlining the tours will be available beginning July 31. The fourth tour, "An Alexandria Art Adventure," takes families outside the Torpedo Factory for a walk of Old Town that engages the senses.

The outside tour was created for children aged 6 to 12; the Torpedo Factory tours are divided into three age groups: 8 to 11, 11 to 14 and 14 to 18.

"Some people think that art is a mystery," begins the Discovery Sheet for the 8 to 11 age group. "They aren't sure what art is about and they don't know what to think when they look at it . . . . Today, you will be a detective. You'll investigate the Torpedo Factory Art Center and solve the mystery of art. This is a good place to investigate art because the Art Center is full of clues, motives, tools and secret ingredients."

The gumshoes are then directed to specific locations around the art center, and asked to investigate certain suspicious phenomena: What kinds of shapes are those, lurking in the corner? What is the hidden meaning of that sculpture? What feelings are cloaked in these colors?

The detectives are also encouraged to interrogate artists briefly about the mysteries of their work. On a recent visit by a small band of detectives, abstract landscape artist Alvena McCormick was barraged with questions: How long does it take to make one painting? Do you ever get bored? Do you ever paint people? Do you paint waterfalls? What is that masking tape doing there?

"The tour is supposed to be fun and educational at the same time," says Plante. "Children learn that they can enjoy looking at art, that they can bring their own interpretation to it and that they can like some works and not others."

The tour for preteens (ages 11 to 14) is based on a journalistic theme. Children pose as star reporters for the Write Stuff Chronicle: "You've been given an exciting assignment to write a feature article about the Torpedo Factory . . . . Inspired by all the creativity around you, you will draw your own illustrations for the article."

The junior scribes are then set loose to observe, interview and report. Along the way they visit some ceramic studios, talk to artists, and learn about adaptive reuse of factories.

"How much of art is talent and how much is hard work?" asked 12-year-old Christy Cain on a recent visit.

"A little talent and a lot of work will go a long way," McCormick answered. "If you really work at it, chances are you can make a great painting."

The self-guided tour for high school students (ages 14 to 18) actually focuses on art as a career. Teens are asked to pick one art medium, visit at least five artists and learn as much as they can about the education, training and business of being an artist.

"It would be wonderful if children left here feeling that they too could make art, either as a career or as a hobby," says Plante.

The walking tour of Alexandria takes families outdoors to explore the city "the way artists do." It's a pleasant walk, and an easy introduction to the basic building blocks of art: shape, texture, space, line and color. The booklet helps children notice the unseen beauty of everyday objects, directing their attention to the intricacies of wrought-iron fences, the curves and arches of doorways and even the decorations on old manhole covers. The Art Adventure booklet even touches on Alexandria's history and future plans for the waterfront.

If self-guided tours leave you cold, get together with another family and arrange for a tour with one of the Torpedo Factory's docents. Tours generally last about one hour, and can be tailored to fit your interests.

The history of the Torpedo Factory is recounted on docent-led tours, as visitors learn about the building's transformation from a factory to a Smithsonian storage facility, to a neighborhood eyesore and then to the arts center it is today.

"This must have been a pretty creepy place at one time, when the building was used as a storage facility and the Smithsonian kept old dinosaur bones here," docent Mary Lou McGonigle recently told some wide-eyed youngsters. "It was a cold, big, dusty place with lots of boxes."

When local artists finally got permission to use the space in 1974, they cleaned it out using bulldozers and fire hoses. "They had no air conditioning, no heat, and they had pigeons sitting on their work," McGonigle told her entranced audience.

After the the hour-long tour, which included two studio visits, Marcie Collins, 8, summed up her Torpedo Factory experience: "It takes a long time to draw a picture."

Daphne White last wrote for Weekend about the Cloisters Children's Museum.