FAMILIAR SOUNDS greet visitors to the Falls Church Bowling Center on a Sunday afternoon: the steady thud of sturdy balls spinning across a smooth hardwood surface, the jarring clatter of scattering pins and whoops of excitement when someone rolls a coveted strike or a spare.

Look around, however, and you'll soon realize that it's not your typical bowling alley. The balls lined up along the return racks look more like multi-hued cannonballs than bowling balls. And where are the finger holes? Shrunken pins, not even a foot high, topple in strange, unpredictable formations. Even the bowlers are tinier than average, and many are playing in stocking feet too small for bowling shoes.

This is duckpin bowling, featuring, as described in the Falls Church center's slogan, "Little balls the kids can handle." Families seeking an activity that both parents and young children can enjoy flock to the lanes on weekends.

"Even the littlest 3- or 4-year-old can pick the ball up with their hands and roll it between their legs," said Jeff Pyles, manager of AMF College Park Bowling Lanes. Duckpin balls generally weigh between 3 and 4 pounds, about half the heft of the lightest tenpin ball. Measuring less than 4 3/4 inches in diameter, the balls look only marginally bigger than those used in croquet. They also lack the finger holes that young bowlers often find uncomfortable in standard bowling balls.

Adding to the sport's kid appeal, most duckpin lanes offer optional bumpers, those inflatable or foam barriers which fill gutters and gently push wayward balls back on track. They're disdained by purists, but loved by preschoolers and their parents: With bumpers in place, even toddlers' snail-paced balls routinely topple at least a couple of pins.

The diminutive sport of duckpins isn't merely child's play, however. In fact, many adults are surprised to find duckpin bowling more challenging than its full-scale counterpart. They frequently can't knock all the pins down, even with the game's allotted three tries per frame.

"Duckpins is a very difficult game," said Chuck Lavin, executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, the sport's sanctioning body. The game seems to involve a luck factor as well as skill, he said, because the lightweight pins (weighing about a pound and a half each) don't fall predictably and often create odd breaks.

As testament to the sport's challenging nature, the perfect 300 game has yet to be bowled -- 279 is the highest on record. (College Park's Pyles, 41, a duckpin bowler since early childhood, boasts the top three-game score of 655.) Adult duckpin bowlers average in the mid-hundreds, while kids who play the game regularly often average in the low hundreds.

The narrow gap between adult's and children's scores is another factor that appeals to families. The Snedden family of McLean, bowling at Falls Church for the first time on a recent Sunday, finished with scores of 65, 70, 82 and 83.

"That makes it fun -- everybody kind of even," said mom Debbie. The high scorer? Six-year old Ben beat his mom by a point, while 8-year-old Katherine finished five points ahead of dead-last dad, Todd, who admitted that knocking the pins over proved more challenging than he'd expected.

Some parents find duckpin centers more family-friendly than tenpin lanes. Jerry Henderson of McLean often brings 8-year-old daughter Casey and a friend to bowl on weekends.

"It's a little more unstructured than regular bowling," he said as he kept score for the kids. "At regular bowling, adults get upset if kids get up to bowl at the same time."

During open bowling at duckpin alleys, especially on weekends, the majority of bowlers are children and tolerant parents, who don't become overly distracted if a youngster in the next lane lofts a ball or gets a little too excited.

Duckpin bowling also offers a nostalgia trip for many adults who played the game as children.

"The boys in our neighborhood in Bowie used to spend a lot of Sunday afternoons bowling," recalled Greg Friedmann, who also took his wife Beth on bowling dates. Thinking their kids might enjoy the game, Greg called around to find a nearby duckpin alley. The family ended up traveling from Ashburn in Loudoun County to the Falls Church center, the only duckpin lanes in Northern Virginia. The long drive appeared worth the effort: 7-year-old Kelly and 4-year-old Michael jumped up and down or hugged their parents whenever pins fell.

Duckpin bowling has suffered in recent years as people's schedules have become crammed with activities like soccer, but the sport maintains a loyal following in the Baltimore-Washington area. After all, it originated in Baltimore in 1900 and soon made its way to Washington, which became the center of the sport during the early part of the century. Gradually, duckpins spread to the northeast, and today the sport boasts 86 alleys, with the heaviest concentration in Maryland.

Baltimoreans also gave the sport its cute name. While watching the first game, baseball players Uncle Wilbert Robinson and John J. McGraw, who hunted ducks as a hobby, commented that the little pins when hit resembled a "flock of flying ducks." Morning Sun sportswriter Bill Clarke picked up on the description and dubbed the new game "duckpins." BOWLED OVER

You'll find duckpin bowling at the following lanes. Expect to pay $2.25 to $3.25 per game, with prices generally lower during open bowling on weekday afternoons and before 5 p.m. on weekends. Shoe rental usually runs around $2. Nearly all lanes accommodate birthday parties on weekends. Party package rates run $7 to $12.50 per child and generally include a game, shoe rental, pizza or a hot dog and a beverage. Party rooms get booked quickly, so try to call at least three weeks in advance. Most lanes offer youth and parent-child leagues on weekend mornings. Many are already in progress and are closed, but call for information. New leagues begin in the summer. MARYLAND ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY AMF SOUTHWEST -- 4991 Fairview Ave., Linthicum. 410/789-2400. Bumpers are available on the first 18 of the alley's 40 lanes during open bowling, primarily weekends from 1 to 5. GLEN BURNIE BOWLING CENTER -- Beltway Crossing Shopping Center, 6322 Ritchie Hwy., Glen Burnie. 410/636-5904. One of the area's newest duckpin lanes, this three-year-old, 30-lane center offers automatic scoring. No bumper bowling. RIVIERA BOWL -- 8551 Fort Smallwood Rd., Pasadena. 410/255-3550. This 24-lane center boasts one of the country's biggest youth leagues. No bumper bowling. FREDERICK COUNTY THURMONT BOWLING CENTER -- 20 Frederick Rd., Thurmont. 301/271-2881. Perhaps the region's smallest bowling center, this six-lane, 1940s alley offers open bowling on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Bumpers available upon request. VILLAGE LANES BOWLING CENTER -- 902 East St., Frederick. 301/662-1442. Call in advance to request a bumper, available during open bowling at the 20-lane alley. WALKERSVILLE BOWLING CENTER INC. -- 44 Pennsylvania Ave., Walkersville. 301/898-3355. Bumpers available upon request at this 10-lane facility. MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOWL AMERICA WESTWOOD -- 5353 Westbard Ave., Bethesda; 301/654-1320. This alley offers 14 duckpin lanes in addition to 20 tenpin lanes. Bumpers are available by request during open bowling, only on duckpin lanes. Call to find out about open hours, which vary greatly because of the high volume of league play. TUFFY LEEMANS GLENMONT BOWL -- 12345 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. 301/942-4200. This all-duckpin facility boasts 24 lanes, including four with bumpers used primarily for parties. Families should call a week or two in advance to reserve a bumper lane. WHITE OAK BOWLING CENTER -- 11207 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring. 301/593-3000. Bumpers are plentiful during open bowling at this 24-lane center. Teens and adults enjoy Rock 'n' Bowl, featuring music, prizes and dimmed lights from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY AMF BOWIE -- 15514 Annapolis Rd., Bowie. 301/262-5553. This center offers 12 duckpin and 20 tenpin lanes, with bumpers available upon request during open bowling. AMF COLLEGE PARK BOWLING LANES -- 9021 Baltimore Blvd., College Park. 301/474-8282. Half of the center's 40 lanes feature built-in bumpers, available upon request during open bowling. The lanes will host the prestigious National Duckpin Bowling Congress national tournament on weekend evenings May 9 through June 7. VIRGINIA FAIRFAX COUNTY FALLS CHURCH BOWLING CENTER -- 400 S. Maple St., Falls Church. 703/533-8131. Bumpers are available upon request during open bowling at this 32-lane facility. FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contact these organizations about duckpin bowling and locations of lanes outside the area: Duckpin Bowling Proprietors of America and National Duckpin Youth Association, 2924 E. Northern Pwky., Baltimore, MD 21214. 410/254-3666. National Duckpin Bowling Congress, 4991 Fairview Ave., Linthicum, MD 21090. 410/636-2695. Mary Jane Solomon last wrote for Weekend about "Secret Santa shops" for kids. CAPTION: Rachel Herman, 2, of Catonsville, Md., tries life in the fast lane as she takes aim and then rolls her ball at Glen Burnie Bowling Center.