"Don't forget to do your homework." With the start of the new school year, that may be the most echoed communication from parents to their school-age children on any given evening. But how often do parents remind kids to play?

Therein lies one of modern parenting's growing dilemmas, according to a survey released recently by the American Toy Institute. It concluded that parental belief that play is critical to childhood development "is on a collision course" with the academic pressures parents and society exert on children today.

Of parents nationwide responding to the survey, 91 percent said that play has a positive effect on children's well-being, having an impact on development of imagination (90 percent), self-confidence and self-esteem (90 percent), creativity (89 percent), problem-solving skills (89 percent) and cooperation (89 percent). Eighty-seven percent believed their own opportunities for play as children have contributed to their success as adults.

But parents' belief in the value of educational excellence and good grades is equally overwhelming--including when it comes at the expense of play. Seventy-two percent think it is important for their children to start academic learning early, and more than half believe their children must do well in school to have a successful life. Nearly one in four believes children have less time for play than they themselves had as children.

"There is no question people recognize the importance of play, and the role that it has played in their lives. And they believe that it plays an important role in their children's lives. But what was surprising was the incredible disconnect between their belief and their behavior," says Terri Bartlett, spokeswoman for ATI, a charitable and educational foundation established by the Toy Manufacturers of America. "When push comes to shove, if it is time for Billy to go study, because that represents to them his grades and his future, Billy is encouraged to go study--and not play."

Some educators are concerned that pressure from policymakers and school boards for higher test scores, better grades, more homework and heightened academic competitiveness is deemphasizing the value of play in schools at the same time that parents are short-shrifting play around the house. Just over half of the parents polled said play should be an integral part of a school curriculum, but 54 percent said there is already enough playtime in academic settings.

"Parents are stuck--and it's a tough place to be," says psychiatrist Stuart Brown, president of the Institute for Play, a nonprofit group based in Carmel Valley, Calif. "Here you have the demand that there be academic excellence. On the other hand, most people have a sense of nostalgia for their own childhood, when there was open and free play.

"I don't think they recognize that open and free play is certainly a kind of learning on par with academic exercises."

Neither has the educational and psychological research establishment recognized play to be a broad-based behavior worthy of scholarly study, says Brown. "Play is considered trivial . . . but if you look closely at the process of play, it has a remarkable kind of heritage and it has formidable implications for nonviolence, cooperation and self-esteem--the things we think of making us the most human. Really important human attributes like perseverance, optimism and flexibility are byproducts of regularly experienced play through the whole developmental life cycle."

To level the playing field, ATI is currently developing a five-year, nationwide campaign, "The Power of Play."

"What we're looking for, first and foremost, is the awareness of the value of play. And as a result of that awareness, we believe, people's behaviors will begin to change," says Bartlett, explaining that a public service advertising campaign will be launched a week after Christmas to deliver the message.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Play is developing a three-hour, three-part public television series it hopes to air in 2000. And next year, ATI will introduce a grass-roots outreach program to incorporate more play into children's lives. "Our mission is to create a link between all the different parties--parents, children, teachers, administrators and legislators," says Bartlett. "The program is to give everyone permission to go out and play."