Eight wiggly 2-year-olds cluster around a large plastic table at Abracadabra Child Care and Development Center in Alexandria one recent sultry afternoon.

"Who would like shaving cream?" asks intern teacher Amanda Sovik, her question prompting a rousing chorus of "Me! Me! Me!" The children, known at the center as the Munchkins, thrust their arms over the table. Sovik and teacher Odalis "Daisy" Estancia obligingly squirt shaving cream in the shape of a fish onto each of the small outstretched palms.

The Munchkins giggle with delight until Sydney Litts suddenly begins wailing loudly. The child next to her has touched her hand, obliterating the fish.

"I want to wash my hands!" Sydney demands loudly. When another Munchkin immediately takes up the cry, the activity appears headed for a premature demise.

Sovik quickly sprinkles white cake flour onto the children's hands. Sydney is promptly transfixed, her desire to wash her hands forgotten.

Then the teachers take turns sprinkling coffee grounds and squirting plastic bottles of baby oil and brown paint. They ask several children what they think the foamy concoction looks like and feels like.

After nearly 25 minutes, Kathy Wilson, the center's director, who has been watching the group, has a suggestion. "You know, I'm wondering if they can squeeze the cans and bottles themselves," she muses.

With a little help from a teacher, Paris Williams depresses the button at the top of the can. She looks stunned as she unleashes a huge stream of shaving cream. "Way to go, Paris," Sovik says approvingly.

While playing with shaving cream--the contemporary equivalent of making mud pies--may look only like fun, the activity also serves a loftier purpose, according to Wilson.

"It may not look like it, but a whole lot of learning went on here," Wilson said later. Playing with shaving cream and other materials teaches children about the properties of different textures. It promotes observation and language, it brings the children together and helps to stimulate creativity, Wilson noted.

"Plus," she added with a sly smile, "they are able to do something they are generally not able to do at home. For a 2-year-old it doesn't get any better than that."

Curriculum is not something many people searching for quality child care consider, but it is one of the things that distinguishes good or excellent day care from mediocre or bad care, noted Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a Washington-based group that accredits day-care centers and preschools. About 500,000 of the nation's 6.8 million children in day care are enrolled in NAEYC-accredited centers.

Wilson, Abracadabra's director for the past seven years, agrees that parents too often overlook curriculum when choosing a child-care center because they regard day care as extended baby-sitting.

"One of the things that separates a quality child-care center from one that is primarily keeping children from third-degree burns is curriculum," said Wilson, who headed the National Women's Political Caucus in the early 1980s.

The custodial aspect of day care traditionally has been regarded as its central purpose, Willer said. "For too long we've assumed that the primary function of day care is keeping kids out of harm's way. We haven't done enough to really recognize that this is a child's first educational environment and should be treated as such."

A program that emphasizes the use of language, employs trained teachers who have frequent, warm interactions with children and fosters a sense of "excitement, involvement, curiosity and active engagement in the learning process" are among the most important indicators of a quality child-care program, Willer said.

"Parents should look for a range of materials and activities" and not just a "glitzy program with a lot of bells and whistles." she added. "There should be activities from which children can choose, not just one way to do something."

At Abracadabra, located in a somewhat shabby, cramped red brick house in the leafy Rosemont neighborhood, the emphasis is decidedly child-centered. Thirty-eight children between the ages of 2 and 5 spend an average of 40 hours a week there, for which their parents pay $640 per month, a fee that includes lunch and snacks. The center is nondenominational but is owned and operated by the Baptist Temple Church next door. Nine staff members work in two shifts.

Unlike many centers, Abracadabra limits the hours a child can spend there. Although the program is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., no child is allowed to remain for that many hours on a regular basis.

"That's too long a day for any child," Wilson said firmly. "Group dynamics stress out the central nervous systems of young children, just the way they do adults. I tell parents they have to make choices and they have to adjust their schedules." Those who regularly stay until 6 usually don't arrive before 9 a.m.

Wilson said she and her teachers strive to make the unavoidable routines of day care interesting. "There's a lot that simply has to be done and takes a lot of time, like hand-washing and going to the bathroom," she said. "In lower-quality programs kids do a lot of sitting and waiting while that is accomplished."

At Abracadabra, while the 4- and 5-year-olds known collectively as the Genies head off in pairs to the bathroom, the rest of the group sings.

"We try and let them take care of their needs as much as they can," said Kelly Sammons, the Genies' lead teacher as she patiently tied one little boy's shoe and listened to another ask a question.

That philosophy extends to small things, like letting children pour their own juice. "Even if they spill it a thousand times, they learn to spill a little less each time," Sammons said.

Because the center is small and there isn't much turnover of staff or children, the teachers get to know individual children.

One recent morning, as the children romped on the small outdoor playground, Sammons noticed that one 4-year-old boy with a somewhat dazed look kept getting into fights. After conferring with another teacher, Sammons learned that the boy was the last to leave the previous night and had arrived at day care early that morning because his mother and grandmother were both out of town. They decide he needs extra attention and try to shield him from his more frenetic classmates.

For Lynette Chappell-Williams, the feeling that the day-care teachers know her daughter Paris is paramount.

"They are very child-focused," said Chappell-Williams, director of equal employment opportunity at George Washington University, who visited 10 centers before choosing Abracadabra a year ago.

"I was turned off by the way the place looked," said Chappell-Williams, who said she wishes the center was located in larger, less shopworn quarters. "Especially on rainy days I wish the kids had more space and room to move."

Chappell-Williams said she was persuaded that the center was right for Paris during her visit last summer. Paris, who had then just turned 2, picked up a container and glue and poured it on the floor, splashing the teacher.

"I was waiting for them to kick me and Paris out, but the teacher was wonderful. She turned it into a learning experience," she recalled.

"The other thing I liked was the interaction between the teachers," Chappell-Williams said. "A lot of times, when I visited other places, I could tell by the way teachers talked to each other that there was tension, and I think kids pick up on that. I didn't feel that here."

CAPTION: You might not try this at home, but at Abracadabra Child Care and Development Center, kids learn serious fun. Two-year-olds Ben Hon (left) and Nicholas Merrill (right) play with shaving cream and other ingredients as teacher Odalis Estancia supervises.

CAPTION: Mick Bijak, 4 years old, shows his skill with a screwdriver at the Abracadabra child care center.

CAPTION: Having wrapped herself in masking tape, Madeleine Kosmela, 3 years old, gets assistance from Abracadabra teacher Nathalie Lapree.