A city official yesterday defended his agency's policy of allowing participants in last summer's youth jobs program to play soccer and other games during working hours, saying the young people "soon became bored" if they were required to work all day.

James Clay, deputy director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that the 3,600 teen-agers who were hired by his department last summer played soccer, rode bikes, read books, made videotapes or took part in dramas up to one hour and 45 minutes during their six-hour work days.

Leahy told Clay that "at age 16, I dug ditches and found that somewhat boring myself, but it was a more valid experience of the real world than if I had taken a break to play soccer."

Leahy asked Clay if he thought employing 3,600 youths, about three for each full-time worker in his department, wasn't "a bit ambitious."

Clay said no, that most of the young people "did rather well and had adequate supervision and the overwhelming number held meaningful jobs." Most were employed at city-operated housing projects, raking leaves, cutting grass, collecting trash and performing other maintenance tasks, Clay said.

Clay said after the hearing that "we obviously don't agree" with Leahy's suggestion that the recreational areas in the work day were not meaningful. Clay said it was "a planned part of the experience."

In addition to playing games with each other, the older employes, some of them college students, also taught young children in the neighborhoods how to play various games, Clay said.

Yesterday's hearing was the second convened by Leahy, chairman of the Senate D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, to permit city officials to respond to charges by committee staff investigators that last summer's youth jobs program was chaotic and fell short of its goal of 30,000 jobs. Last week, Mayor Marion S. Barry testified that the program had exceeded its goal by employing more than 32,000 young people.

Allegations of mismanagement of the program, which is partly funded by federal grants caused Leahy to warn the mayor that Congress is likely to reduce future appropriations unless the city can demonstrate that it can improve the program's performance.

After Clay told Leahy yesterday that "we can handle more jobs next summer" with better planning. Leahy asked if there were "any limit to the number your department can handle?" Clay said the department could handle an additional thousand youths next summer.

William H. Rumsey, director of the District's recreation department, told Leahy he would consider cutting back next year from the 3,700 jobs accepted last summer if more mature supervisors cannot be found.

The congressional investigators said the recreation department had only one supervisor for every 75 youngsters last summer. The investigators recommended drastically reducing the number of youths assigned to the department next summer or eliminating that part of the program.

"It could appear that we did not have a handle "on how to provide meaningful jobs at some of the department's 373 work sites, Rumsey said.

Part of the problem, Rumsey said, is that "the definition of work in a play atmosphere could be difficult" for investigators to understand. "The work experience may not be visible," he said, "but they were involved. Play can be seen as nonwork, but if it develops an appreciation of the use of leisure time, it is worthwhile."

Leahy responded that a second group of investigators, from the U.S. Department of Labor, visited the Banneker recreation site in Northwest Washington and found "too many kids, nonexistent records, pay for lunch, no supplies, people signing in and out at the same time and other conditions that might give a false idea of the work experience."

Police Chief Bertell M. Jefferson testified that the 420 people assigned to the police force for the summer worked hard, and learned skills in data processing, communications, fleet management and other fields. They also learned the importance of punctuality and proper dress, the chief said.

Jefferson said the program, as conducted by his department, was "more than simply keeping youth off the street," although he added that keeping young people busy during the summer is critical to holding down the crime rate.

For the last two years, Jefferson said, crime in June, July and August averaged 22 percent higher than during the other three seasons. "The percentage would be much greater" if there were no summer youth jobs program, the chief said.

Several young people who participated in the program praised their experience. One girl said it was "better than school, and another said she parlayed her summer assignment into a full-time job as a switchboard operator.

Leahy said he is "not looking for a way to cut out this program." He said Congress must share some blame if the program has failed, because of the "bifurcated home rule" that requires the city to come to Congress for money, and then gives Congress the right to impose regulations on city programs.

A successful summer jobs program is "very much needed" to encourage young people "with no hope on their souls," Leahy said. "If we don't help them now, if we screw up, you can scratch them" as useful members of society in the future, Leahy concluded.