While their friends were enjoying days of camp and uninterrupted play, eight first- and second-graders from Hunt Valley Elementary School in Springfield entered a literary Olympics last summer.

The event was marathon reading, and by summer's end the youngsters had read at least 50 books each -- a remarkable achievement for children their age, say area educators.

The eight children are proud of their achievement, which school reading instructor Ginny Fant calls remarkable.

"You've got to remember they only learned to read a few years ago," says Fant, who designed the summer reading program. At a school assembly, the eight children will receive gold-painted medals made of baked dough, and their photographs will hang on a hall bulletin board for all 900 pupils in the school to see.

Fant said she wanted a program that would give young children the incentive to read, and read a lot.

"It's the old 'practice makes perfect,' just like they would practice the piano," she said. "But we needed an incentive. We are competing against a lot of things -- television, cable, movies. You see a lot of these kid's parents at Erol's Video Club renting tapes for the VCRs. Children just will not read a lot unless they have an incentive, even if that incentive is a dough medal and recognition from their fellow students."

The program was open to children who were first- and second-graders last year and heading for second and third grade this fall.

Fant said the children could choose any books they wanted, but they had to write a short description of each book in a journal to prove they read it. She also had the parents sign an agreement to support their children's efforts.

Of the 50 children who started the program when school let out last spring, eight had read the required 50 books when school opened this fall.

That meant finishing almost five books a week, which meant reading every day. And not just reading, because the children also had to write a description of the books.

"My friends thought it was really boring," said Eve Glassman, 8, who is now a third-grader at the school. She volunteered that she found the reading boring a lot of the time, too.

"I like TV and movies better because they have pictures," she explained.

"I wrote my hands off," said Megan Safley, a third-grader who sat with the other children around a knee-high table in Fant's brightly colored classroom. The other seven nodded in solemn agreement.

The children said they spent up to two hours each day reading and writing, usually while friends milled around impatiently, waiting for them to come out and play or go to the community pool for a swim.

To encourage their children, most parents offered some small incentives, also called bribes. A candy bar every now and then, for example, although other bribes/incentives included an alarm clock, a submarine sandwich and a 25-cent increase in allowance.

The children said that if they were to do it again, they would require larger incentives -- $800 seemed to be the going rate.

"It was hard," said second-grader Nedim Hakimi, who learned English two years ago when he moved with his family to the United States from Turkey.

Most of the children trooped to the public library every week, picking out books with the aide of a librarian or their parents. Red-haired Kathleen Callen's mother is a library aide, so she brought home books almost every day for her daughter.

"They were really good ones except the ones about real people biographies ," said Callen, who read a prodigious 72 books over the summer, more than any other child in the program.

Anna Jemmett and Jee Whon Kim, both third-graders, looked for mysteries and action books, respectively. Jason Seiler, 6 years old, looked for books about dragons.

The subjects varied, but the children were constantly on the lookout for books that were short.

"Real short," said Eve.

And while most of the children said they were going to lay off books for a while, some were inspired.

"I'm going to read in the winter when there is snow outside," said Jason.

Second-grader David Brewster went one better. "I'm going to write books," he announced, tempered by a "maybe."

For Fant, the program was especially successful because half of the eight children were diagnosed as learning disabled and the other half were diagnosed as gifted and talented.

"We had the slow readers with the fast readers," she said. "We crossed all lines of nationality and gender."

But Fant said she doubted that any of the children could have made their goal without the support of their parents. She said parents are actively involved in the Hunt Valley school, which serves an affluent area of Springfield.

"She was highly motivated at the start," said Emmy Lou Glassman, mother of Eve Glassman.

"But on a day-to-day basis we had to nudge a little. For someone that young it is hard to complete a project, especially such a long, involved one.

"Now she's gained a lot of self-esteem," said Glassman. "She's hoping President Reagan will hear about this and talk to all the children. I really believe it's terrific to have reading considered a gold medal achievement."

Fant said she always thought her own four children were not challenged enough in school, so when most of them were grown she returned to school herself 12 years ago to get a teaching degree. She said parents often ask her if she is pushing their children too hard, but she tells them that learning is a discipline -- obtained only by setting goals and working until they are achieved.

"And besides, the kids love a good challenge, especially when it's over and done with," she said.

Her principal, James Lascavage, calls her unorthodox. "Whenever anyone asks me about Ginny, I tell them about Mel Ott, who used to play for the old New York Giants," said Lascavage. "He swung at the ball the wrong way, stood with his hip out all wrong, but he always got it over the fence. Ginny is my Mel Ott."