As the heavy holiday shopping begins this weekend, shoppers scouring stores for the right toys for the children in their lives should take a long hard look at the age guidelines that appear on many labels.

They may not mean what you think and Ann Brown, a local toy specialist, says that your mistake could end up hurting your child.

"When you see a label that says 'Not for 3 and under,' don't assume that it is a reference to the child's ability to use the toy -- which everybody wants to overestimate," said Brown, the chairman of the local Americans for Democratic Action consumer group that conducts an annual toy survey. "What that label probably means is that the toy could pose a safety problem -- maybe a choking hazard -- for a child under 3."

Shoppers should assume that age labels refer to safety, unless otherwise stated, she said.

Brown is one of a growing number of toy safety officials who have been urging the toy industry to improve its age labeling. Others supporting the idea include Nancy Harvey Steorts, chairman of the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Commissioner Stuart M. Statler.

All three believe that expanded age and safety labeling information could reduce injuries, many of which result from misuse and not from defects in toys. Reports filed with the CPSC show that, in 1983, 16 children died and 118,000 others were injured in toy-related accidents.

Most toy-related injuries occurred from falling or tripping over the toy, the agency said. But the second most frequently reported accident involved children choking from swallowing small toys or parts of toys.

"Very often these involved children who may have been too young to use the toy in the way it was intended to be used," the CPSC said. "These accidents involved balloons, crayons, marbles, small toy building pieces and stuffed crib toys."

Despite this, only a few of the 150,000 toys on the market now contain labels with safety information that alerts shoppers to the specific hazards posed by a particular toy. One of the exceptions is the Lego building block set, which includes a warning that says, "This set contains small parts and is not intended for children under 3 years."

Another toy with detailed labeling on the hazards of misuse is the package of balloons marketed by the National Latex Co. of Ashland, Ohio. The warning reads: "Do not give balloons to infants or children under 3 years old. Young children could choke on or be suffocated by a whole balloon or piece of broken balloon. Keep balloons away from eyes."

In the past, the toy industry has fought vigorously against suggestions from the CPSC for expanded labeling.

Doug Thomson, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, a trade group that represents about 90 percent of American toy companies, said in August that the industry has opposed "descriptive labeling which would suggest to the consumer when there has been no problem with a particular toy."

But since then toy manufacturers and the CPSC have been working toward a mutually statisfying agreement.

The CPSC is also working on specific examples of toys that might present problems and that should be labeled with age and safety descriptions. At the same time, toy manufacturers are examining their records to see if there are any problem toys that need expanded safety labels.

Whatever they do, however, won't be in time to help toy shoppers this Christmas.