Shopping malls long ago became community centers. But why did they become havens for kooky moms and dads? "Astonished in Springfield" writes with the latest proof that some parents have disconnected their brains.

"Astonished" and her 2 1/2-year-old son were shopping at Springfield Mall.

If you've never been there, this mall has done what all should do: constructed a play area for small children. Equipment includes a carousel, a jungle gym, a slide and that all-time favorite, a "moon bounce."

Key piece of information: A sign at the entrance to the play area reminds parents not to leave children unattended.

There's good reason for that. Little kids can fall, bump heads, skin knees, get hungry, get thirsty, get sad, get tired or get kidnapped quicker than you can say sneakers-on-sale-at-Sports-Authority.

The good news at Springfield Mall: A parent can watch a child without hovering. There's a clear line of sight from tables near the food court. Better news: A mall employee watches over the whole human stew.

And yet . . .

On New Year's Day, "Astonished" was watching her son from a table near the food court when a 6-year-old approached. He asked for help in reaching a high-ish rung on the jungle gym.

"Astonished" declined. "Your parents don't know me and would be upset if they saw me helping you," she said.

But the parents would never know, said the boy. They were having lunch at Taco Bell -- well out of sight of their son.

"Astonished" asks: Could I "please remind parents that no young child should ever be left unattended in a public place?"

Deed done, milady. May I add another piece of advice to this potential train wreck of a story?

If parents want to eat without sonny boy along, they have every right to do so. But they should hire a babysitter and leave the child at home.

Jim Bradford passes along a collection of funny signs he has spotted aboard various kinds of commercial vehicles. He says it's proof that we live in a burg where people are "clever and funny for no reason."

Jim's treasure trove:

"Poultry in motion" aboard a chicken delivery truck.

"Caution: Fragrant Stops" aboard a Caruso's Florist truck.

"Counter Intelligence" on the side of a kitchen remodeling truck.

And Jim's favorite . . .

A "Rookie Driver" sticker on a taxi in Rockville.

CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL

These groups contributed in recent days to our annual fundraising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital:

Federal Reprographics Association ($250).

Prince George's Community College staff ($575).

Staff, American Counseling Association, Alexandria ($206.77 via a sixth annual cookie day).

Somerset Couples' Bridge Group and Daytime Women's Bridge Group, Fairfax ($133).

Green Thumb Garden Club, Springfield ($200).

Student Government Association, Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring ($500).

Past Commanders Club, College Park Post 217, the American Legion ($100).

Modern Technologies Corp. teams, Fort Belvoir and Quantico ($700 from a Christmas tree decorating contest held at the 13th annual holiday party).

Fairfax chapter 737, National Association of Retired Federal Employees ($180).

Westwood Women's Wednesday Bridge Club ($50).

Tuesday Ladies' Bridge Group, Bowie ($40).

Army-Navy Country Club Tuesday Night Duplicate Bridge Group ($150).

Wheaton Chowder and Marching Society ($100).

Staff, Atlantic Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Center, Silver Spring ($35).

Staff and friends, Hoffman, Wasson & Gitler, Arlington (a titanic $12,862.75 collected at the annual holiday party, under the stewardship, as always, of name partner Martin P. Hoffman).

Employees, Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division, Federal Highway Administration, Sterling ($150).

Employees, Record Information and Dissemination Section, FBI ($630 collected at the "RIDS Revue").

Saint Bernadette's Tuesday Club, Silver Spring ($137).

Suzie Ritz's Grade 2B students, St. Jerome's School ($50 earned by doing extra jobs around the house).

Employees, Montgomery County Circuit Court ($160 with special thanks to Jessie Rinehart).

Staff, Mantua Elementary School, Fairfax ($175 in memory of Alejandra Yepez-Franco).

Staff, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Inc. ($170 in lieu of a gift exchange).

Staff, American Express One Travel, International Monetary Fund, Northwest Washington ($340 instead of a Secret Santa and toy collection drive).

Court of Camelot Civic Association, Annandale ($436.74 from sales of holiday candles).

Employees, Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc., Northwest Washington ($589 from these annually generous folks).

The Bunco Gals from Glen Mar Park ($110).

Thank you very much, each and every one.

Our goal by Jan. 24: $1,000,000.

In hand as of Jan. 7: $484,699.49.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to

Children's Hospital and mail it to

Bob Levey's Campaign for Children's,

P.O. Box 75528, Baltimore, Md. 21275-5528.

BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a

touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S,

or 5437, and follow instructions.

TO CONTRIBUTE ONLINE:

Go to

www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and follow instructions.