Tsunechika Mimura, who is not yet three years old, toddled down a narrow plank in his playroom at the Growing Buds Education Institute and as instructed by a teacher, picked up three red apples.

It was a good performance of a play-task the two-year-old had been practicing for weeks. For little Tsunechika, it was fun. But for his teachers and anxious parents, it was a serious business - prepping for kindergarten.

Sending two and three-year-olds to kindergarten preparatory schools like Growing Buds is the latest development in education-conscious Japan, where the school system already is known as a pressure-cooker having unwholesome effects on some children.

Sometime this month, thousands of tots will take examinations for prestigious kindergartens, climbing on the first step of an "escalator system," that, if all goes well, will carry them up to high-rank universities.

Many leading colleges in Japan have feeder-school systems. Getting into the right kindergarten means getting into the right primary school. From there, if he doesn't make any major mistakes, a Japanese child can go on to the quality junior and senior high schools that feed the universities.

The key to success, then is the kindergarten, and the competition for admittance is tough. Many fail and must settle for less prestigious schools.

According to Hideo Ohori, director of Growing Buds, about 15 to 20 per cent of the applicants get into the major universities' kindergartens that their parents pick out for them. So the anxious father pays between $68 and $132 a month for the preparatory training to improve his child's chances.

Tsunechika and the others begin prepping in April for the November exams. They dance and sing and play with blocks and clay, just like nursery schools anywhere, and no training in reading or writing is given. Math consists of mastering the "concept of three," learning how to pick out three apples, oranges or chestnuts from a pile.

Before November, the children are given "simulation exams" to prepare for the big tests. They are urged to perform energetically and to show interest in their play, because that's what the kindergartens look for.

"They want children who can concentrate and get things done," said Ohori.

Each child is carefully taught to imitate an elephant, by walking in a stooped position with one arm dangling to simulate the animal's trunk.All the kindergartens watch for that performance to determine dexterity, said Fumyko Hirasawa, the leading teacher at Growing Buds.

What the kindergartens don't want, she explained, are children who have been "over-protected" by their mothers. If the child is excessively shy or seems unable to perform simple tasks like removing a jacket - a sure sign of being over-protected - the kindergartens give him a low score.

While the toddlers go through their paces, mothers gather in another room for counseling - prepping for their own interviews at the kindergartens. They are warned against being over-protective and given some do's and don'ts to follow when they are questiioned about their children.

Don't admit they're angling for a good kindergarten just to assure the child a good college later on, they are advised. They are told it is better to say they want their children to have good human values.

Ohori warned one group of mothers that low scores are given to children who perform in a way that differs from their parent's description. For example, he explained to a reporter later, parents should not say their child is confident and outgoing when actually he cries a lot when left with other children. It is better just to admit that the child had been over-protected, he said.

The kindergarten prep schools have been criticized by some as adding to the pressure on Japanese school children who already are under heavy pressure from exams. Concern is widespread in Japan over the "exam hell" faced annually by students applying for the best high schools and universities. Failure often means a devastating lack of confidence for the applicant and frequently results in serious psychological problems, physical illness and even suicide, authorities have pointed out.

Kindergarten prep schools also are criticized because they weed out at an early age those deemed unsuited for the better colleges. Is it fair to deny the clumsy two-year-old a position on the escalator simply because he can't take his jacket off without mother's help, critics ask.

The prep schools are defended by some who see them as a healthy alternative to the fierce exam pressures faced by adolescents in Japan. The child who gets onto the escalator system can ride it to a leading university almost automatically without taking ardours exams as a teen-ager. All he must do is to perform well enough to stay on the escalator.

Many parents bring children to Growing Buds specifically to avoid the "exam hell" according to Ohori. The prep schools try to teach good social behavior and humanistic values, he said, and don't try to charm knowledge into their young minds. The kindergartens they are being trained for want desirable attitudes, not skilled book learning.

Besides, Ohori said, the two-year-old child is too young to be worried about his performance.

"The children do not feel pressure," he said. "But the parents feel tremendous pressure" to get them into kindergartens.

Parents agreed that avoiding future "exam hells" was a major reason for bring their children to Growing Buds.

Etsuko Terada brought her three-year-old daughter Keiko to be prepped for a kindergarten that would get her into Japan Women's University.She explained that she does not want Keiko to become a "slave" of the entrance exams later in life. By riding the escalator system, Keiko could spend more time on her special interests and hobbies and less on preparing for the dreaded entrance exams, the mother said.

"I don't want Keiko to suffer the exam hell in the future," she said.