AT MARJORIE'S DAY School in Northwest Washington, a 3-year-old boy approached his teacher with his work. She sighed aloud and rolled her eyes. "I told you to crayon the water blue. Water is blue. Why did you color it purple? Go back and do it again."

The boy said something barely audible and the teacher teetered across the room in spike heels, stuck her hand in a jar and teetered back again. "Here's a blue crayon," she said, then continued her patrol past the three tables of 17 2-and 3-year-olds all busily crayoning in the same ditto sheets.

"I told you to color the top fish first, didn't I?" she said to a boy at the "slow table." At another table, a little girl held up a yellow crayon. "All my numbers are yellow," she said animatedly to the girl beside her. "Cut the talking, Carolyn, and color."

I went looking for a day care center for my 2-year-old son and what did I find? I found preschools that are preparing our children for kindergarten with a vengeance. Marjorie's Day School, licensed by the D.C. Department of Human Resources, was just one of two dozen schools I saw in the inner city and suburbs. At most of these schools, kids aren't allowed to be kids anymore -- or so it seemed from the glimpses I got of them.

Preschools are using workbooks and ditto sheets that were published specifically with older children in mind. They are testing 3-year-olds for "reading readiness," offering French and Spanish lessons for children who can barely ask for a glass of water in English, providing hands-on computer programs in basic math skills and issuing three-page reports that evaluate a 3-year-old's contribution to group discussion, ability to identify a rhombus, seriate shades of color and shake hands with "appropriate greeting."

"We are a school, not a nursery school," the director of one church- related school in Northwest Washington told me.

Her hand-picked 3-year-old charges spend their days reading and learning mathematics and "are way beyond 'Mary Had A Little Lamb.' "

At a decidedly upscale preschool in Bethesda, a mother proudly pointed out that her 4-year-old daughter has received "all the preparation for kindergarten so she'll do beautifully next year, I'm sure."

What in the world are we doing to our children? The Washingtonian tells us about 2-year-old twins who get excited over Rodin's Gates of Hell. Newsweek advises us about bringing up Superbaby with lessons in computers, gymnastics, music and swimming. They forgot puppet-making, cooking, rhythm, clay modeling, karate and aerobics -- all available to 4-year-old Washingtonians.

Bruno Bettelheim, the eminent child psychologist, has speculated that once parents stopped worrying about toilet training their children at an early age, they needed a substitute object for parental angst, and settled on academic achievement. It is more commonly assumed that this perversion of childhood learning began snowballing 26 years ago with Sputnik in a Cold War fought by the Terrible 2s. In the panic that followed, books like "How To Teach Your Baby To Read" (in his highchair before he learns to talk, exorted Glenn Doman, the author) and "Give Your Child A Superior Mind" became bestsellers.

We all want the best for our children, but what is the best? A stumble-free life? Boundless success? An Aprica stroller? Haagen-Dazs ice cream? What about a Harvard education? When it comes to a child's success in life, the parent's ego is on the chopping board. Why else would a professional Bethesda couple drag their 4-year-old son to the prestigious Kingsbury Center for remedial tests costing hundreds of dollars, simply because he hadn't yet learned to print his name? Who wants to spend $3,000 a year for nursery school only to be told that your child is average?

Twenty-five years ago, my mother joked that I was failing sandbox. No more jokes: now your preschooler can fail to learn sounds, letters, printing, numbers, similarities and differences, classification and socialization.

Parents, understandably, want something beyond custodial care for their children. But in selecting the "right" school, we often respond more to our own needs -- or the memories of old needs -- than we do to the needs of the children.

In combing the greater Washington area for the perfect day-care center (with openings) I was responding to my only memory of kindergarten. I'd punched David Goss for swiping my red jumbo crayon. Miss Patterson hauled me to the front of the class and, in front of 30 fascinated 5-year- olds, put me over her knee and spanked me. I was so scared I peed all over her dress.

I wanted something different for my child. I was looking for a nursery school with loving, intelligent adults, blocks, puzzles, paint, clay, books, playground -- all this in a place where Ben could eat his lunch and (I hope) take a nap. Day-care center, nursery school, I didn't care what name it went by. It didn't seem like a lot to ask for, but it was.

Two of the schools I observed were Montessori. There are 58 of them in the Washington area and, not surprisingly, many parents swear by the 70-year-old method. They say their children grow into self-disciplined, independent adolescents. "The kids are really tired when they come home," said one mother of two Montessori-educated daughters. "They call it work and they do work very hard. They really take pride in doing something the way they're supposed to."

A Montessori environment recognizes the child: it was Montessori, after all, who conceived child-size furniture and puzzles with knobs for easy handling. It recognizes all five senses as stimulants for learning. Sandpaper letters, for example, appeal directly to the child's tactile sense. The materials are self-correcting, so that each child can advance at her own pace. The teachers are well trained, though Montessori philosophy assumes a high ratio of students to teacher, believing that grown-ups usually obstruct a child's learning and concentration.

And Montessori recognizes the child's need for structure in his environment. Yes, children love to scrub the table, sweep floors, and polish shoes. But they also love to make-believe over a little sink, build a city out of blocks, and paint a monster house. The Montessorian, however, would criticize that sink because its faucets fail to run real water. The strict Montessori classroom is devoid of fantasy. There are no blocks, no housekeeping, no dress-up. There is only one way to polish shoes and scrub the table, and this clear-cut, even ritualistic, approach can be easily abused by an insensitive teacher.

At the Second Renaissance Montessori School in Northwest Washington, a 3-year-old boy had eye- dropped yellow, blue, and red-colored water side-by-side into an ice cube tray. He was regarding his work with satisfaction when the teacher passed by.

"That's not the way I told you to do it, is it Aaron?" she said, taking the tray away from him and dumping the colored water into a nearby trash can. He was supposed to have left a space between each of the primary colors, she explained to me, so that he could mix them into the secondary colors.

There have always been insensitive teachers. These days, however, there are also new philosophies of preschool education that could be accused of insensitivity. In many schools "accomplishment" has replaced "fun." Instead of day-care centers, I found "schools," each with an "extended day program" to accommodate working parents. One mother enthusiastically endorsed her 2-year-old's school by telling me that "The kids just don't play here. It's educational." A director of one Maryland preschool assured me that there is "no play time as such. It's directed. In the afternoon we tell Old Testament Bible stories and work on gross motor skills. In the morning, it's math, science and social studies. Yes, even for 2-year-olds. They do it on their level, but it's there."

Formal instruction in the early years has been repudiated by almost every major thinker in the field -- from Arnold Gesell, whose book, "The First Five Years of Life," has long been the nursery school teacher's bible, to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose writings on cognitive development have shaped a generation of psychologists, educators and parents.

From Gesell came the concept of readiness or maturation, the idea that for every age there is a stage in which certain patterns of physical, intellectual, language and social behavior invariably emerge in the healthy child. Coaching and training before the appropriate stage, he concluded, is futile. From Piaget came the understanding that a child between 2 and 7 (the "preoperational" stage) is developmentally unable to reason abstractly. The young child, according to Piaget, is not a midget- sized adult but a being whose world is vastly different from ours.

The 4-year-old child who watches as a tall cylinder full of water is poured into a stocky glass is still unable to comprehend that the same quantity of water is contained by each vessel. The child has not yet learned to deal with the world on a symbolic level. In other words, any 21/2-or 3-year-old who watches Sesame Street can rattle off the alphabet. But what does that mean beyond an ability to mimic?

"There's a difference between intellectual development and academic development," says Jenni Klein, director of educational services for Head Start since 1969. "People show children pictures of apples and say, "This is an apple." But they must hold it, taste it, bite into it. You cannot learn to cook just from a cookbook. We tend not to give our children experience.

"Going to the supermarket is an educational experience. You can learn about fruit, which is a category. You can learn about coldness, about money, about color. It's chemistry. It's agriculture. It's concept. There are red apples and there are yellow apples and then you can take an apple home and cook it and it becomes mushy. The chemistry changes. When you peel it, it's white inside and if you leave it out it wrinkles up and Grandma has wrinkles too. The world is just full of things that children can learn, but there's the assumption that if you teach them the alphabet, then they have learned."

As the mother of a 2-year-old who bombards me with questions from the moment he wakes up in the morning, I find it absurd that I need to prod him to learn. He's hellbent on it. Children learn every minute of the day. They learn concretely, through play. They learn the concepts of mathematics by building with blocks. They learn about the weather by going outside in the snow, sun and rain. A 1969 Roper survey found that 79 percent of high achievers in the primary years had all been read to in massive doses during the preschool years.

"The best preparation for academics is through play," says Bettelheim, who adds that, "Since we began teaching reading earlier and earlier, reading scores later on became lower and lower. You can train a monkey to recognize shapes but I don't think it helps a monkey lead a better monkey life.

"Early academic achievement does not guarantee anything. It can be done but it's useless. You cannot isolate one thing. Everything you do has a price. Certainly we can teach academics early but it has a very high price. We have seen an increase of drug use, great unhappiness, suicides. And nobody connects the two."

A kindergarten teacher at a prestigious private school in Bethesda says she has noticed a lack of spontaneity among some of her pupils. "We're seeing kids who are very anxious. I see a depressed child, a certain apathy. Many of my children see psychologists and psychiatrists."

Despite the best knowledge we have about the learning patterns of young children, workbooks, flashcards and ditto sheets are being marketed and used aggressively. Many ed ducators and psychologists are appalled.

But parents -- convinced that their kids won't get ahead otherwise -- are demanding sophisticated preschool academic programs. Workbooks are displayed in toy stores. The Weekly Reader is gearing up to publish a new edition for preschoolers. Its first issue is devoted to the loss of baby teeth -- an event its audience won't experience for another three or four years.

Reading workbooks, published specifically for kindergarten through grade 4, are being downgraded: used, that is, to teach 3-and 4-year-olds. Preschool looks more and more like kindergarten and kindergarten, I'm told, looks very much like grade 3. At the Owl School on Cathedral Ave. N.W., the teacher relies upon a standardized curriculum to teach 2s. At the Geneva School in Bethesda, there is a language arts center, a math center, a science center, a computer center. Toddlers are expected to visit each center for at least 20 minutes twice a week. To facilitate that, plastic pockets emblazoned with the names of the 3-and 4-year- old students hang on a wall in the middle of the classroom. Every morning, the children check their pockets.

"Say Mr. McCabe decides Adam should be in science," explained Betsy Baldwin, the school's director. "He puts a blue tag in his pocket and Adam knows where to go. When a child comes into a center, his name is checked off on a mimeographed sheet hung on the wall. If a teacher decides a child needs friends, she sends him to housekeeping because it's more conducive to socialization."

Besides priding itself as the area's first preschool to introduce computers into the classroom, the Geneva School also boasts a "motor perception person," who teaches, among other things, aerobic dancing. Like aerobic dancing for grownups, this includes warm-up exercises, cool- down exercises, situps, leg lifts -- all of which are "very difficult for kids this age," says the instructor. "But it makes them aware of what exercises they should be doing. . ."

Whatever happened to jumping rope?

"The problem is that the kind of learning that children do is difficult to see and keep track of," says Barbara Bowman, director of the Erikson Institute for the Advanced Study of Childhood in Chicago. "Years ago we'd say, 'Oh, your child is playing just fine.' We didn't say, 'As a child plays with blocks he learns a one-to- one relationship which is the basis of mathematical knowledge.' The early pressure tanks exist because we, and by we I mean the public, understand so little of child development. A lot of people are running programs who don't have the foggiest notion of what end of a little kid is up."

Betty Caldwell, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, sees a terrific amount of pressure coming from parents. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she is director of the early childhood center, parents regularly try to push their 3-year-olds into the 4s' classroom.

One of her favorite stories involves a 4-year-old boy who was described to her as very gifted. His father had taught him the names of the past six presidents. Go ahead, the father urged Caldwell, ask him who's secretary of defense. "Caspar Weinberger," came the answer. But when she gave the boy a puzzle to work on, he didn't know where to begin.

At the University of Maryland's Center for Young Children, which offers computer classes to 3-year-olds, assistant director June Wright says she has received calls from parents wanting to put 18-month-old babies on computers. "We've had kindergarten teachers call us too and say, 'What do we do?' " Wright says. "Parents want them to teach long vowel sounds and short vowel sounds and some of these kids just aren't ready. That's quite a lot to expect from a 5-year-old. The issue is whether it's required or not. A lot of children can read by 5."

One kindergarten teacher who has painfully born the pressures of parents shrugs and says, "For years we have sung 'Mary Had any ed Little Lamb' Now we sing it meaningfully. You don't just sit in a corner and bother the kid next to you. You interact. You don't just mess with paints. It was a creative media experience. You don't just stare at clouds. You observe similarities and differences. There's an anxiety that if you don't go to nursery school you have already failed, and that success in nursery school is predicated on preschool.

"A mother of a kindergarten child came in last week and screamed. She went to the principal and she complained that her child wasn't reading yet. The school had failed her, she said. She told us, she didn't ask us, she told us that she had already evaluated his level and decided he should be reading. She was totally unrelaxed about what's happening in kindergarten.

"The parents come in and say, 'The teacher in the other school is doing this. You're not.' Or, 'They made better murals in nursery school than you made here.' No parent says to me anymore, 'Where's your playground?' but 'Where are your materials?' "

In this yearning to substantiate what is often elusive, a great deal is being lost. David Elkind, psychologist and author of "The Hurried Child," believes that early reading is a social activity, a chance to climb up on Mommy's or Daddy's lap and snuggle in. And, in fact, it is not uncommon to hear about bright young children who adamantly refuse to learn to read for fear they will no longer be read to. Many 2s can learn to identify the ABCs. Many 4s can learn to read. But there has never been any evidence to show that a 4-year-old reader will grow into a 40- year-old genius.

Education is a business -- a business, incidentally, that is increasingly being run by MBAs instead of educators. Like any good business, it is responding to our anxieties. This is a frustrated generation of parents, many of us stymied in our work lives, jealously guarding what we've still got in this shrinking economy, just keeping our shoulders above the highwater mark, and already worried about what our kids are going to do when they reach our age.

In this world, kids are going to grow up fast no matter what we do. I see, and am sometimes disturbed by, a precociousness which seems strangely unchildlike in my own son. Why rush him even more?

I was lucky. I stumbled onto a wonderful sunny day-care center that is run like a nursery school and respects the child's own zest for learning. The materials are there for him to play with and the teachers are there to answer his questions. I knew Ben was going to be just fine when, one day, I was talking about some of these things with his teacher, Pearl Waxman.

"There's so much to life," she told me, "yet children are being taught that the only shapes in the world are triangles, squares and circles. You're teaching these children letters and numbers and they can't even pull their own pants up. What comes first? Isn't it just as important to blow a dandelion and to think that these are seeds blowing away?"

Putting the mad rush into perspective, there is an old Yiddish joke: "He'll be a professor next week."