Pinball machines may evoke carefree summertime fun along a seaside boardwalk, but their presence in a shopping center near a Silver Spring elementary school is causing dissension between the pupils and their parents.

While members of the Fairland Elementary School PTA gather signatures on petitions opposing the opening of a pinball and electronic-games center, a group of fifth and sixth graders who attend the school are busy with a petition drive of their own.

The petitions they are circulating among their peers are in favor of the amusement center.

School principal John Canning, who shares the parents' view, told the younger petitioners their campaign, in light of the parents' efforts, was a testament to the democratic process.

Canning said he and the parents agree that an amusement center within 200 feet of the school's entrance would be "inappropriate."

Canning says he fears the center will become a "hangout for loitering youths" and the schoolyard a repository for their used beer and soda cans.

"Any time you have young people gathering, you invite vandalism," Canning said.

Canning also warned that "adventurous youngsters could attempt to slip away from school during recess or lunch to play pinball machines."

Although teachers do patrol the schoolyard, Canning says it is not always possible to keep a determined youngster from leaving the school grounds. a

"I'm not trying to give the impression kids are sneaky, but there are always a few who could be lured away by this type of activity."

He'd rather the county build a recreation center for Silver Spring than grant a zoning exception allowing the opening of such an amusement center. Parent organizer Suzanne Carboni, who has enlisted the aid of 15 local civic associations, agrees. Her group will present testimony against the amusement center at pending public hearings.

Center owner Bill G. Smith said he sympathizes with the concerns about loitering and truancy, but adds that he has no intention of running a business that attracts "undesirable types. We are going to make this a family-oriented place," Smith said. "We're not looking to open something that will turn into a headache."

His plans call for 25 pinball machines and electronic games. "I never envisioned this type of (negative) reaction," Smith said. "We thought noise would be a concern, so we had the builder put in extra insulation."

Smith said he will not open the amusement center until after school is in session, and he will not condone truancy. "If we have truants or loiterers we will stop it; it is an absolute case of dollars and cents." Smith says gangs of youths in front of a store are bad for business, so he or his partner will be on the premises at all times.

The supporters of Smith's game center plan are the young people of the Fairlands community.

"I like pinball machines," said Scott Robinson, 10. "If they're afraid of kids hanging around, why don't they keep a police officer there?"

"I understand totally why parents don't want it," said Billy Gelfeld, 11. He and seven other youngsters said their parents are "afraid some teenagers will get us hooked on dope."

But he insisted, "We wouldn't be influenced by teens smoking dope. We're all of sound mind."

Donald Zieler, 11, said he and his friends hope to get more signatures on their petitions than their parents can collect on theirs. "Then we could easily win this."

He feels it's unfair of parents to assume the amusement center will become a teen hangout. He added, "Until the place becomes a problem, let it stay open. That seems to be the best way to go."

The Montgomery County board of appeals' public hearing on the request for a zoning exception to allow the amusement center is scheduled for 9 a.m. today in the county office building in Rockville.