IF THE IDEA of bringing the kids to the library conjures up images of pursed lips with an index finger held to them and the long steady exhale of "sssh," then it's time to update your thinking. Today's libraries offer myriad programs designed to have children cutting and gluing, singing, dancing and even -- say it's not so! -- watching videos inside their hallowed halls. All in the name of education and community service, of course, and best of all, it's free.

At a recent "Perfect Penguins" program for preschoolers at Reston Regional Library, my 4-year-old son, Eli, and I were greeted by a smiling Miss Lisa -- known to the adults as Lisa Williams -- who welcomed us in to enjoy 45 minutes of antarctic activities, featuring songs, crafts and stories about penguins. With the dog days of summer still barking at our heels, we were more than happy to spend time indoors in a cool, child-friendly environment, listening to tales of an icy tundra.

Children and caregivers were invited to take a seat on the floor. Some adults spread out blankets. Williams gave the adults handouts that included song lyrics and rhymes, a description of the craft we would be making and a bibliography of the books she would be reading, plus a few additional recommendations.

It was a full agenda, and I was skeptical that we could get to everything, especially with a room filled with 25 children younger than 5.

Williams immediately launched into the "Hi, Hello and How Are You?" song (sung to the tune of "Merry We Roll Along," with lyrics on our handout), which had more adults than children singing but certainly got the kids' attention. From there, she started her first book, "Tacky the Penguin," by Helen Lester, a tale of a messy, iconoclastic penguin who doesn't like to go with the floe.

As Williams read the story aloud, I peeked around: Twenty-five small faces were turned toward her, listening in rapt attention. Yes, I know how unusual that may sound. But I was there and witnessed it.

The kids were hooked, my own energetic son included. Williams read in a normal tone of voice with normal inflections, no method acting or funny voices necessary -- and still the children listened.

From there we had another song, followed by another book, some rhyme time and one final book -- by then we were pushing a few children's attention spans -- and then a very short animated video segment of counting with penguins.

The fun didn't end there. We still had a craft to make: a take-home penguin, made from two paper cups, with stickers for eyes and construction paper beaks and feet.

Eli, who is usually more comfortable with Legos and wheeled vehicles than with arts and crafts, eagerly took to the project, as did most of the children, as the room grew quiet with concentration.

"One of the important things we do is provide a home model for parents and caregivers," says Elizabeth Rhodes, children's services manager for Reston Regional Library. "That's one of the main reasons we supply a handout and do simple crafts that use everyday items. We like to show this can be done at home using the same books, or other books and stories -- we even recommend additional books to take home and try out."

The library preschool programs at Reston all include fingerplay -- a song that includes hand motions (think "Itsy Bitsy Spider"), a craft and an activity that corresponds to the books read.

"Fingerplay utilizes small motor skills," Rhodes says. "Songs help develop rhythm and pronunciation, which is a precursor to reading, and then we like to include a large-motor-skill activity, a dance or something that requires children to use their whole bodies."

Last year the Fairfax County Public Library held 1,251 events for children up to age 5, drawing 40,538 attendees. All of the county's 21 library branches feature youth programming and events on their calendars.

As "Perfect Penguins" drew to a close, children were clutching their paper penguins and singing the "Goodbye, Goodbye" song as they happily waddled like penguins out the door.

RESTON REGIONAL LIBRARY -- 11925 Bowman Towne Dr., Reston. Free children's programs with songs, crafts and story time. Registration required. Upcoming events: toddler story time, Wednesday at 10:15 and 11; preschool story time (ages 3-6), Thursday at 10:15 and 11. Weekend family events: Saturday, Reston Regional Library's 20th Anniversary Fiesta: ceremony at 1, puppet shows at 2 and 3:15. All ages; no registration required. Refreshments, music and Carousel Puppets. Sept. 17 at 10:30, Puppy Love! Meet an animal rescue volunteer and hear stories about pets (ages 5 and older). 703-689-2700.