When Montgomery County officials dedicated the county's first regional park in 1960, only a small nature center dotted the huge expanse of wooded parkland in what was then largely a rural bedroom community.

But within three years, the county started adding tennis courts, softball fields and picnic areas to meet the growing demand for recreation facilities from residents who were flocking to newly built subdivisions springing up across the county.

Today, the 533-acre Wheaton Regional Park, located off Georgia Avenue between Arcola Avenue and Randolph Road, is the flagship of a 27,000-acre park system that serves more than 590,000 people, many of whom consider recreation in their now-urbanized county nearly as important as rewarding professional careers.

"In a push-button society, it's become a lot more important for people to participate in things, particularly from an active standpoint," said John Davis, who heads the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), a 20,000-member trade group representing local park and recreation managers.

"People, particularly in the Washington area, are more sophisticated and educated now. They place more emphasis on how they look and feel, and place more expectations on local parks," he added.

The development of parks and recreational facilities in the Washington area is a case study of life styles that have evolved from the sedate 1950s to the health- and fitness-crazed 1980s. That is particularly true in Montgomery County, where income and education levels are among the highest in the nation.

"I play a lot of tennis pretty seriously, and this is the nicest place around to play," said Nancy Tang, 27, a pediatrician, as she waited for a court at the 66-acre Olney Manor Park, off Georgia Avenue.

At Cabin John Regional Park in Bethesda, Sheela Mathew, 19, and Rani George, 29, shared quiet conversation and cantaloupe in a tree-shaded glade. Nearby, Alfredo Baulosla celebrated a birthday with 30 relatives and friends under a picnic pavilion redolent with frying hamburgers and barbecuing chicken.

"It's nice to have some place like this close by," said Mathew.

Last year, Montgomery County park attendance topped 2 million for the second year in a row, the highest rate for any two-year period in the past decade. Overall attendance has grown by 15.8 percent since 1975, compared to a 2.5 percent increase in population, according to newly released figures.

"The Washington, D.C., area is blessed with some of the best local park and recreation activities in the country . . . but I'd have to say Montgomery County is almost in a class by itself," said Davis.

The county park system contains nearly half again as much parkland as Prince George's County and one-third again as much as Fairfax County, which are similar in size, population and wealth, according to figures supplied by the three jurisdictions.

Montgomery also ranks first in spending on recreation programs and parkland.

"Montgomery County citizens want the best type of services available for their children and themselves," said County Council President Michael Gudis. ". . . We accomplish a number of things by having a good park system. Beside recreation facilities, we provide a certain amount of open space in a densly populated region."

If Montgomery's parks rise a cut above other local parks, it is because of a longstanding emphasis on quality, according to park officials.

"We've had very high standards, and we've tried desperately over the years to sustain them, despite some lean budgets," said Bob Young, associate director of parks.

The county's Northwest Branch golf course, for example, has been rated among the top five public golf courses in the country by the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), said Young.

Wheaton Regional Park contains the kind of attractions that have earned the county three gold awards from the NRPA since 1973, a feat unequalled by any other local park system, said Richard Schorch, a county park administrator.

The park includes 12 lighted tennis courts and six ball fields, two of which are lighted. Six of the tennis courts are covered every October with an inflatable fabric bubble for winter play.

The park also contains an enclosed ice rink, a riding stable, a children's petting zoo, a two-mile scenic train ride, an antique carousel and Brookside Gardens, one of the few county-supported botanical gardens in the country.

The 50-acre garden, toured by 150,000 visitors last year, contains more than 1,000 azalea and rose bushes, palms from the Philippines, ferns from Australia and three formal, terraced gardens that rise in flowered splendor to a hillside gazebo.

"About 50 couples a year get married in the gazebo," said Els Benjamin, a horticulturist and the garden's director. "It's really an aesthetic experience."

The growth of local park systems coincided with the mass migration to the suburbs following World War II. Hundreds of new communities appealed to the federal government, then the major builder of parks, for new recreational facilities, said George M. Kyle, a National Park Service spokesman.

In 1962, President John Kennedy created the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, which doled out $2.87 billion between 1965 and 1984 to aid state and local governments in the purchase of 2.8 million acres of land in 31,700 parks around the country, according to Kyle.

Montgomery County officials exhibited some foresight when, following the 1960 dedication of the Wheaton park, they mapped out nine other regional parks. Six are finished or nearing completion, according to park officials. Under a longstanding policy, only one-third of a regional park -- so designated because it contains more than 200 acres -- is developed, said parks director Young.

The regional system is buttressed by dozens of smaller community parks and large undeveloped stream valley parks used mainly for hunting, fishing and camping.

Other counties have followed the same pattern. Prince George's County, for example, has four regional parks, in addition to 81 neighborhood and community parks, according to a park spokesman. The Fairfax park authority operates 325 parks, while the regional authority is responsible for seven regional parks in northern Virginia and a marina in the county.

Park facilities in Montgomery, as elsewhere, reflect what county officials perceive to be their constituents' changing desires. Because of an explosion in recreational sports during the 1970s, the county developed Olney Manor Park exclusively as a sports complex. It has 18 tennis courts, two basketball courts, five ball fields, six handball courts and horseshoe and shuffleboard playing areas.

Soccer and tennis caught the imagination of sports buffs in the early 1970s. Reflecting the trend, the number of adult soccer leagues in Montgomery County has soared by 400 percent since 1973, said Jim Wiltshire, the county's coordinator of adult sports.

"In 1971, there were 60 kids playing soccer. Now 8,800 kids play just about every Saturday, and people who played the sport as youths now are playing as adults," said Wiltshire.

If there is an emerging trend sport in the 1980s, Wiltshire and others believe it may be volleyball. The county now sponsors 40 men's teams, 20 women's teams and 160 mixed teams.

Slow-pitch softball, the country's first major public park sport, has been the number one recreational team sport in Montgomery for years. In other jurisdictions around the country, softball complexes have been built by private companies because local governments could not afford to pick up the tab.

But Montgomery County provides 200 fields, 47 of which are lighted for night play. Many are completely fenced, and include press boxes, electronic scoreboards, bleachers and grass outfields that are as smooth as a well-manicured suburban lawn.

Regional softball fields also have molded pitcher's mounds and professional-type bases. The foul lines are laid with special instruments so "they are perfectly accurate," and the fields are lined every day, said parks director Young. "Our fields are second only to Memorial Stadium home of the Baltimore Orioles . Their maintenance people instruct our crews," he added.

Since 1980, federal funding for park acquisition has declined dramatically. Montgomery County has been relatively unaffected, however, because both its park system and its recreation department are funded by taxes that are specifically assessed for recreation and park programs.

The property taxes -- 26 cents per $100 assessed value for parks and 6 cents per $100 assessed value for recreation -- raised a total of $38 million this fiscal year. They are levied across the county, except in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Emory Grove, which have their own recreation and park departments.

County officials credit much of the success of their program to the specific tax, which ensures that funding is always available for parks and recreation rather than having to compete for funds from the general budget, which is the case in Fairfax County.

Fairfax County has also turned to user fees to help defray the costs of recreation; almost 50 percent of the budget is from fees.

Fees play a minor role in financing Montgomery's parks, about 10 percent.