"Ship across the ocean, ship across the sea.

Captain, captain, can't catch me!"That rhyme may transport you to playgrounds past, where you lined up with your friends, feinting and dodging your way across the battered grass, almost letting yourself be caught by the captain before pouring it on to reach the opposite "shore."

The same rhyme remains a part of playgrounds present.

Despite appearances the world is one big Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and reports that today's kids don't play cowboys-and-Indians but crack dealers-and-cops, and predictions that kids have lost the ability to imagine, such traditional games as hide 'n' seek, freeze tag, red rover and four-square have endured.

There is one difference from past generations, according to recreation supervisors and child behavior experts: Today's kids often need to be jump-started before their imaginative engines kick in.

Colleen Law, recreation center director in St. Paul, Minn., said that in her 10 years on the job she has observed that kids have grown less motivated to start a game on their own, although they will still play once a game is suggested.

"They need more direction and I think it's because kids just generally are more structured these days," she said.

Law wonders whether that pattern is a by-product of single-parent families or families in which both parents work outside the home. In these situations, child-care programs take up where school left off, scheduling the activities of the day just as formally.

Professor Richard Weinberg, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, said while kids' daily lives might be more structured than they used to be, so are everybody else's.

Still, it's important to allow for some time for unstructured play, "because it's through play that children explore and understand the world around them," Weinberg said. "It allows them to develop a sense of rules and breaking rules, and what that means to the social system."

Play is an especially important way for children to explore their fantasies and feelings and to learn new ideas, in addition to physical development.

"When children are older there's more interaction as their peer group becomes more important," he said. "Play becomes a microcosm of the greater world because it's there that children rehearse new roles."

Weinberg is not surprised that kids are still playing traditional games. "Some of these basic games - tag, chasing, `You're it!' - have a kind of universal quality to them because there's physical activity as well as learning skills such as cunningness."

Besides, he said, "They're fun."

Still, even these universal games face stiff competition these days from pizza and video parlors.

In response to parents tired of celebrating their children's birthdays amid such electronic cacophony, Patty Fowler, an Apple Valley, Minn., recreation specialist, last year started a birthday-party program that harks back to simpler times.

"I had mothers say, `I've rented a clown, I've rented a pony, I've had a magician come to the house. We're out of ideas,' " Fowler said. "You want to say to the mother, `What happened to the traditional games?' "

Her two-hour birthday parties feature games such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, musical chairs, London Bridge, and red light-green light; the games chosen vary according to the kids' ages. For $60, up to eight guests get cake, ice cream, table cloths, plates and napkins, decorations, party favors, beverages, a present for the birthday child and setup and cleanup.

And contrary to the doomsayers, children have not lost the ability to invent games.

A group of boys at St. Paul's Linwood Community Center, for example, have made up an obstacle course on the playground for "Army training," and have invented a variation on the television show "American Gladiators" in which one perches atop the jungle gym and throws a Kooshball at the others, aiming for a hit.

"It's not exactly `American Gladiators,' " said Dave Young, who's going on 10. "The real one uses a cannon."

Then there's kiss-or-kill, in which you grab another kid's wrist and say, "Kiss or kill."

"If they say, `Kill,' then you punch them in the arm but not hard enough to hurt," explained Nick Dubois, 8. Stephanie suddenly remembered a crucial point: "It's always girls catching boys and boys catching girls."

Which led to Nick's proud proclamation: "I've never been kissed."