BEIJING -- It is playtime at the Tongren Kindergarten. As 3-year-olds run relay races in the schoolyard, the teacher suddenly calls out to one girl.

"You didn't run on the dotted line," the teacher says disapprovingly. The girl, pigtails bobbing, immediately retraces her steps on faded red spots painted on the concrete. The teacher smiles and nods. No one else makes the same mistake.

Children in Communist China learn early the importance of conformity and obedience. Here in the world's most populous country, the highest praise for a child is to be called guai -- well behaved and obedient.

To be sure, Chinese kids are loved and pampered by their parents. Indeed, because of a family-planning policy begun in late 1979 that limits each couple to one child, spoiled only-children have become so common that Chinese have dubbed them "the little emperors."

But practically from the moment they are born, Chinese babies are conditioned to conform. They are swaddled in blankets and tied up with string to prevent their arms and legs from moving. They sleep only on their backs, never on their stomachs.

Thumbsucking, pacifiers, security blankets and cuddly stuffed animals are not allowed. Toilet training starts within months of birth. Crawling, the main way infants learn new skills, is discouraged. Left-handedness is a no-no.

"Parents like best for their children to be obedient," said Wu Fenggang, deputy director of the Child Development Research Center of China. "I think parents are worried that if children are too individualistic, they might face problems later on."

Western child-development experts say such practices may teach children to rely not on themselves but on an outside power, whether their parents or society.

"I think it would make them learn very early that they didn't have any control over their environment," said T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School who has also studied child development here. "I think a child who was feisty or individualistic would have a very hard time in China."

After a Chinese baby is born, nurses and doctors swaddle it so tightly in layers of cloth that its arms and legs cannot move. Only the head is exposed. Chinese say the purpose is to recreate the physical security and warmth of the womb.

Often, the bundle is then tied at the child's arms and around the legs, "to make sure the legs grow straight and the child doesn't become bow-legged," said Guo Yanqiu, 37, a Chinese journalist whose son, now 15, was bound like this for three months, including sleeping and feeding times. The boy was only unwrapped to change his cloth diaper and for bathing.

Swaddling has been linked to increased incidence of respiratory disease and hypothermia and hinders breast-feeding. The incidence of pneumonia among children between birth and age 5, for example, is three to four times higher than that in more developed countries, according to Robert Parker, a senior UNICEF official in Beijing. Hypothermia, the condition that swaddling was designed to combat in the first place, results because the infant's arms and legs are unable to move to generate heat. And infants who are tightly bound tend to sleep more, and therefore won't nurse as frequently, Parker said.

Although some hospitals in Beijing have stopped the practice, swaddling is still widespread in much of China, and in some poor rural regions it is taken to an extreme. In parts of Shandong Province and neighboring Hebei Province -- areas plagued by water shortages -- an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 peasants are wrapping their babies in sandbags for as long as a year after birth, and in some cases, up to five years, according to UNICEF.

The peasants believe they can avoid washing babies and diapers by letting their infants wet the fine delta silt of the Yellow River. Babies are packed into bags with about nine pounds of sand -- covered to the waist so that they cannot bend, sit up, roll or move about. Parents leave their children at home in these bags while they work in the fields, and they change the sand when they come home at the end of the day.

Chinese researchers say deprivation of early stimulation has made many of these sandbag babies slow learners -- unable to stand until they are 20 months old, unable to crawl even at 10 months and unable to say the simplest words before 18 months.

Experts are trying to persuade peasants to change these practices but have found it difficult because of longstanding customs.

"The parents want them to be obedient," said child psychologist Wu, who has been researching the effect of environmental stimuli on early childhood development.

"When the baby is first put in the bag, he will fuss and fuss. But if no one pays him any attention, then he will learn not to fuss," Wu said. The babies become abnormally docile, seldom crying, which is what the parents want, he said.

The more common method of toilet training in China is known as ba, which means to hold the infant, legs apart and bare-bottomed, over a commode while whistling to encourage it to urinate. There are no disposable diapers or diaper services in China, so infants and toddlers wear split-bottom pants. Children squatting on the roadside to relieve themselves are a common sight.

At the Tongren Kindergarten, a teacher held 10-month-old Wang Qichao, a round-faced boy wearing split-bottom pants covered with bunnies, in the ba position over a metal bucket. During lunch, the boy sat on a specially made wooden potty chair with a chamber pot underneath. To make sure he did not fall off, he was tied to the chair.

"Our policy is to start {toilet-training} when they come to the nursery," principal Guo Huizhu said. "At 6 months, we train them to sit on the wooden potty. By the time they are 2, they usually can go {to to the bathroom} by themselves."

By contrast, in the United States, toilet training does not start until a child indicates he or she is ready, usually around age 2. Western experts say toilet-training children too early may affect their self-esteem.

Chinese babies are also discouraged from crawling because their parents believe the concrete floors are too cold and dirty and their apartments too cramped. Initial results from a study underway in Beijing by Chinese and American researchers on the effect of crawling on development show that Chinese babies crawl two to three months later than the average American baby -- at 9 to 10 months. Chinese babies also are slower in some areas of spatial perception and visual motor skills, according to one of the researchers, Bennett I. Bertenthal, a child-psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

Instead of crawling, Chinese babies often spend long stretches in their wooden high chairs or portable cribs, which look like miniature wooden shopping carts.

"There is much less opportunity to explore by moving around, and this restricts your world view and your sense of being able to act independently," Bertenthal said.

It is in day care and preschool that the most rigorous socialization takes place. Working parents often have no choice but to send their children -- sometimes as early as a few months old -- to some sort of day care. Grandparents or other relatives may live too far away or otherwise be unable to help take care of the children; some prefer to send their only children to day care because they do not want them spoiled by the grandparents, day care administrators say.

"The children who come here are better adjusted for society," said Tongren principal Guo.

Unlike in the United States, where parents resist boarding their children at a school at too early an age, it is common for Chinese parents to enroll their children in boarding nurseries and kindergartens, bringing them home only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The practice also is widespread in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese communities.

A preschool class considered chaotic by Chinese standards is not as uninhibited as those in the United States or Japan, according to a 1989 study of preschools in the three cultures. In China, if it is time to color, the children sit at their desks with crayons in hand. If it is time to listen to the teacher read a story, the boys and girls are seated, all in a row, in their tiny chairs. After lunch, every child gets his or her cot ready for the required nap, whether they are sleepy or not. There is virtually no unstructured time.

"There's no freedom. It's almost half-military training," said journalist Guo, whose son, Ai Xiao, was often rapped on the head with a spoon by his teacher during lunch period because "he liked to move around and didn't like to sit still."

Even at an exclusive private school in Sichuan Province that has American teachers, youngsters march in formation to wash their hands and are not allowed to talk during lunch.

During an arts and crafts class at the Three Mile Village Kindergarten, several 3-year-olds colored a rocket, using the exact shades of orange, green, pink and blue as those used by their teacher.

Even toilet breaks are scheduled into the day; the children squat together over one long trough in the communal bathroom.

Chinese social scientists and some educators say there is a growing awareness that children do better in a less restrictive environment.

A recent article in the Tianjin Evening News compared childrens' minds to a sheet of white paper that parents and teachers were trying to cram full. "Let the children do it themselves!" the article said. "Let the children smear on it, leave some room, have some dreams, have some romance, have some self."