Venturing into my daughter's third-grade class after basketball relays, I figured kids were tired enough even to listen to a lawyer. "Samantha," I asked a dark-eyed girl sporting a Brownie vest, "what comes to mind when you hear the word 'law?' "

"Well," she said, hesitating, "mostly I think of stuff I can't do because my parents don't like it."

It's not surprising that kids harbor vague, negative ideas of "the law." Since the '50s, an army of lawyers, led by Perry Mason, the "L.A. Law" crowd and Ally McBeal, has invaded family rooms. Cop shows like "NYPD Blue" show the less lucrative side of law enforcement. TV judges, including super-confident Judge Judy, volcanic Judge Joe, and judicial freshman Judge Amy, gaze down at stadiums packed with justice-seekers.

Older kids' ideas of what a lawyer's or a cop's life is like could come from a Scott Turow novel, John Grisham's "Rainmaker" or the O.J. Simpson circus.

One thing is clear: Most children's "legal" impressions spring from a screen. But real-life law operates in much more complex ways than can be squeezed into a 30-minute drama.

Might there be a better way?

There is. All around the Washington area there's an explosion of effort to teach children how our legal system works. It's driven by county and state bar associations, consumer organizations, national organizations like the American Bar Association (ABA) and hundreds of volunteers.

Lawyers like Sonia Duchak, chairman the Fairfax Bar Association's Law Related Education Committee, lead the way. On a typical day, Duchak and her committee of 79 might set up a showing of Goldilocks v. the Three Bears for a first-grade class, while finding a lawyer willing to field 12th-graders' questions about that first Visa card.

Today's youths already have a lot on their plates. Why add the law to the list of things already on the plate? Aren't school, friends, basketball and Hilfiger-mania enough?

Not really. "It's never too soon to start introducing the idea that society has rules and there are consequences for the choices we make,"

notes marriage and family therapist Zeena Zeidberg, whose Centreville practice includes lots of children.

Chaos-avoidance starts in preschool--no hitting, wait until everyone has a snack before eating yours, only three people in the block corner, etc.

Long before the word "democracy" appears around fourth grade, kids are well aware of a "system" larger than themselves. And although they may feel largely on the receiving end, kids are an important part of building it. Inviting them to make up rules, apply them and punish lawbreakers satisfies every kid's quest for fairness.

"Law awareness" comes in increments. At first, children grasp concrete rules--the "take off your muddy shoes at the door" and "no TV on school nights" stuff.

But around age 9, observed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, kids can reason abstractly, letting them imagine things that aren't right before their eyes. In Zeena Zeidberg's experience, "Concepts about rules and laws don't carry the same understanding until a child demonstrates the capacity for abstract thinking, at around age 13. Until a child has a good grasp of time, fear of consequences is less well-developed--even young teens often live in the moment and may not exercise good judgment."

Eventually, small people appreciate rules--especially during a tense game of soccer or basketball. And since we lack dictators to think and choose for us, we're stuck with figuring out how this "democracy" thing works--definitely a learned skill.

Kids buying into our legal system must pick a role for themselves. Rick Miller, executive director of the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program for the Schools of Maryland (CLREP), says one of his program's goals is "to help kids develop a constructive attitude toward the law. . . . If we're going to have a democracy, we need voluntary compliance. You can see some of the breakdown--for example, the hordes of people who ignore red lights."

To cultivate lawyers, judges, and law-enforcement people for 2030, we need to get their attention today.

The days when teachers talked and students listened, however, are over. Kids learn best by participating, having a stake in the outcome. Nintendo- or Sega-like visual interest doesn't hurt, either. Among innovative ways to nurture the next Justice O'Connor or Rehnquist:

* Watch a play or take a class. Will Big Bad Wolf force Curly Pig to pay damages for that leg he broke tumbling down the chimney? Stay tuned. State and local bar associations supply cast and script for plays that illustrate legal principles in a concrete, fun way. Many use the child-friendly American Bar Association curriculum.

Or listen to one voice at a time. Several organizations, including the Virginia State Bar's Speakers Bureau, can ship you a lawyer to speak on topics from "Drinking, Driving and Drugs" to "Law as a Career." Street Law Inc., a nonprofit group specializing in law-related education, sends Georgetown Law School students into high schools with "law you can use," featuring role-plays, field trips, and video clips.

* Go on a tour. Kids will enthusiastically tour a paper-clip factory if it gets them out of school. Why not go where the drama's real--your local courthouse? Bar associations offer court tours for children if you book in advance. Sonya Duchak reports that in Fairfax County, you can fire questions at a real judge and even watch a trial. Or visit police headquarters, a law school, or the FBI's headquarters in Washington.

* Write an essay. Children are contest junkies. Virginia State Bar's "Law in Society" competition showers essay winners with savings bonds, dictionaries, plaques, T-shirts and stardom in the local paper. The D.C. and Maryland bars and the ABA sponsor similar contests.

* Star in your own courtroom. Mock trials--"moot court"--long confined to law school, have invaded high school. The D.C. Street Law Project hosts an annual mock trial competition in which student lawyers and witnesses debate cases before Superior Court judges. Fairfax County's Model Judiciary program gives fledgling lawyers a taste of oral argument and witness-grilling.

Graduates of Maryland's CLREP mock trial program have started similar teams at Boston University, Princeton, and other colleges, reports director Rick Miller. And watch out for the coolest new forum, CLREP's Teen Court in Baltimore City.

* Read a book or tell a story. Even 5-year-olds will sit still to hear about a mouse who lives in the Supreme Court.

Good picks for kids under 10:

"Annie Bananie and the People's Court," by Leah Komaiko (Bantam Books, 1997); "A Day in Court With Mrs. Trinh," by Alice K. Flanagan (Children's Press, 1997).

And, "Marshall, the Courthouse Mouse: A Tail of the U.S. Supreme Court," by Peter W. Barnes (Vacation Spot Publications, 1998); "Aware & Alert: My Community Police Officer," by Patricia Lakin (Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1995); "Law & Order (Who Cares?)," by Pam Adams (Child's Play International, 1995).

For older kids:

"Dead Giveaways: How Real-Life Crimes Are Solved by Amazing Scientific Evidence, Personality Profiling & Paranormal Investigations," by Andrew Donkin (Element, 1998); "Adolescent Rights: Are Young People Equal Under the Law?," By Keith Elliot Greenberg (Twenty First Century Books, 1995).

And, "Bicycle Patrol Officers," by Michael Green (Franklin Watts, 1999); "America's Most Wanted Fifth Graders," by Jan Lawrence and Linda Raskin (Apple, 1997); "Courtroom Drama--120 of the World's Most Notable Trials," Vols. 1-3, by Elizabeth Front-Knappman and Edward W. Knappman (Visible Ink Press, 1997).

* Play a game. You may think board games went out with Beaver Cleaver and Lassie, but add hot chocolate and popcorn, and try one of these:

Mindtrap and Mindtrap II (12 to adult, Pressman Games); 30-Second Mysteries (12-adult, University Games); Judge for Yourself (12-adult, Milton Bradley); Scruples, the Game of Moral Dilemmas (Parker Bros.).

Also, Clue Junior (5-8, Parker Bros.); Figure It Out (8-adult, Nickelodeon/Cardinal Industries).

* Become a "Suit." Nothing like walking a block in someone else's shoes to see what his life is like. Maryland high school juniors and seniors can spend eight summer weeks working for a firm, while others gorge on boardwalk fries. CLREP's "Law Links" program offers high school students paid internships in a law firm or other law-related job. First, students attend a "law and leadership" institute covering everything from who shakes hands first to how to dress professionally.

D.C. Bar's mentor program pairs high school classes with law firms. Students visit the firm, take field trips, and get coaching for mock trials.

* Become a peacemaker. Peer mediation programs are flourishing in schools from Fauquier County to Baltimore City, helping kids solve conflicts from playground to chem lab.

Peer mediators, besides learning leadership and communication skills, help create a more peaceful community.

The adult world sometimes strikes kids as prehistoric. But from Congress and state legislatures to police stations, courtrooms and prisons, the law is more vital and provocative than slick TV interpretations. Children can realize this and fill the gap if given the chance.

Resources

National and local resources include:

* Georgetown University Law Center, D.C. Street Law Project, 111 F St. NW, Room 330, Washington, D.C. 20001-2095; 202-662-9615; On the Web, www.law.georgetown.edu/clinics/dcstreet

* Citizenship Law-Related Education Program for the Schools of Maryland, 1420 N. Charles St., Charles Hall, Suite 419, Baltimore, Md. 21201-5779; 410-837-6760; www.clrep.org

* D.C. Bar Assn., 1250 H St. NW, Sixth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005-5937; 202-737-4700; www.dcbar.org

* Virginia State Bar Assn., 707 E. Main St., Suite 1500, Richmond, Va. 23219-2800; 804-775-0500; www.vsb.org

* Maryland State Bar Assn. Inc., Maryland Bar Center, Baltimore, Md. 21201; 410-685-7878 or 800-492-1964; www.msba.org

* American Bar Assn., Division for Public Education, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, Chicago, Ill. 60611; 312-988-5735; www.abanet.org/publiced