A Howard County Circuit Court judge shut down an exclusive day care center near Columbia for 10 days today as police continued a months-long investigation into alleged sexual and physical abuse at the center.

Judge Joseph F. Fisher said he ordered the emergency injunction against Craig's Country Pre-School "to protect the health of the center's children." He said he will consider a request by the state and county health departments to permanently close the school, which normally serves about 30 children.

This is the first time the Howard County health department has moved to close a day care center, according to county officials; it is also a highly unusual move for state authorities.

Lawyers for Sandra Craig, owner and operator of the center, said they have requested a hearing early next week to contest the order.

Craig could not be reached for comment today. But earlier this week she said, "Nothing happened here, and that's why it's so devastating. It's mass hysteria and I have no control over it."

Fisher's order came just seven hours after Howard County police executed separate search warrants at the day care center on Rt. 108, and at the home of Craig and her husband Michael in a wealthy section of Columbia.

Eight police officers searched both locations for five hours and "seized material," according to police spokesman Sgt. Angus Park, who, like other county and state officials, declined to release further details.

"They searched the joint, that's all I know. It was just like in the movies," Craig's mother, Eliza Freedman, said in an interview at the center today. Freedman lives at the center, which was licensed in 1981 and includes a rambling brick and adobe house with a swimming pool, hot tub, separate playhouse and playground.

Howard County police officials said they are investigating four cases of alleged sexual abuse at the center. Mothers in two of those cases said in interviews that the allegations revolve around Craig's teen-age son. The mothers also said they have told FBI agents that their children have talked about pictures being taken at the center during some episodes of abuse. The FBI investigates allegations of pornography.

One of the mothers, who lives in Columbia, said she has told police that Craig's son and another boy sexually abused her 4-year-old daughter on several occasions. She said a physical examination by a doctor confirmed that the girl had been molested.

The effect of the alleged abuse on her daughter is dramatic, the mother said: the child ran screaming from the room when she saw the storybook character Pinocchio on TV, the girl has nightmares and cries often, and her play includes hostile actions such as tying her stuffed animals to the bedposts.

"This is something that'll be with us all of our lives," the girl's mother said. "I'm going to be watching her and saying 'Are you all right? Do you want to talk?' "

Last month about 70 parents of children from the center -- including some from Montgomery County -- met with the county health department and were told what kind of behavior to watch for in their children if they suspected abuse.

Since then, parents of 23 children who attended the center have requested evaluations at the county sexual assault center, sources said.

The Craigs' son was arrested in July 1985 and charged with sexually abusing a 5-year-old Rockville girl while she was being cared for at the center.

The boy, now 16, was charged with child abuse and second- and third-degree sex offenses, according to Howard County police.

Howard County State's Attorney William R. Hymes said a plea agreement was reached in which authorities agreed to not prosecute if the family sought counseling for the boy and kept him away from children at the center.

Craig said her son's arrest was based on "fifth-hand hearsay." The problems that led to his hospitalization in a private psychiatric institution are typical teen-age problems of "wanting to spend too much time with his friends, staying out too late," she said.

Craig, who is black, said the allegations of sexual abuse are racially motivated. All four of the childen whose cases are under investigation are white.

"I'm a good target and they've hit me. When you've got white mothers accusing you . . . in general in society, that's how it is," Craig said during an interview in her second-floor office at the center. The office is full of self-help books and decorated with color snapshots of her son and two teen-aged daughters and the children -- ages 3, 4 and 5 -- who have attended the day care center.

The Columbia mother denies that race is a motive in her allegations. "Frankly, if race were a problem, I wouldn't have put my daughter there in the first place," she said.

The Howard County Health Department, which licenses day care centers and has never revoked a day care license, has been investigating Craig's since October.

Craig's license expired in December and was not renewed, pending the outcome of the investigation, according to Nancy Weber, a health department nurse. Centers can operate under expired licenses unless an action is taken to shut them down, she said.

There are only 49 licensed group day care centers such as Craig's in the county, Weber said. At $377 a month, Craig's is more expensive than the $260 county average for a center.

During 1984 and 1985, the only period for which figures are available, no day care centers in the state were closed by court order, according to Ann Blackburn, spokeswoman for the Maryland health department. During those two years, fewer than 10 centers had licenses revoked through an often lengthy administrative process, she said.

For about a decade before Craig's Country Pre-school was granted a license, Craig and her family lived in the house. She and Freedman operated a family day care business there, caring for six or fewer children, according to Craig.