We are approaching the dawn of a very special new year, for there hasn't been one quite like it in more than a century. The year 1991 is a palindrome; that is, it reads the same backward and forward. The last time this occurred was in 1881, and it won't happen again until the year 2002.

There are many number palindromes to be found in everyday life, and awakening your children to the existence of these special numbers, as well as teaching them the word "palindrome" itself (the accent is on the first syllable), is an educational opportunity for every home and family.Palindromes make special numbers out of some zip codes (84148, for example), telephone numbers (351-4153), times of day (12:21), airplanes (747), and calendar dates, such as next January 9th, which can be abbreviated 1-9-91.

Most people, though, associate palindromes with words and phrases in which the spelling is the same from left-to-right as it is from right-to-left. I have found that the most enjoyable and effective way to introduce palindromes to children (even to older children) is to start out with very short words, such as "mom," "eye," "bib," "Nan," and take turns coming up with words that are 3-letter palindromes. Now move on to 4-letter palindromes such as "toot," "noon," "deed," and "Anna ." Again, take turns, but realize that the possibilities are now more limited, and so the difficulty is increased.

Five-letter palindromes are even more rare, and from here on you may have to supply most or all of them yourself. But your children will take special interest in words like "radar," "level," "civic," "madam," "rotor," "kayak," and "refer" when they see what these words have in common.

How long can a palindrome be? Well, once you've reached "redder" and "repaper," you find yourself in the world of phrase and sentence palindromes. For example, when Adam introduced himself to Eve (also a palindrome), he may have said, "Madam, I'm Adam." (Or, to carry it out a bit longer still: "Madam in Eden, I'm Adam.") Other extended palindromes include "A man, a plan, a canal - Panama!" and "Was it a car or a cat I saw?"

Another form of sentence palindrome that can be appreciated by children and adults alike is the sentence that is reversible when read word-by-word instead of letter-by-letter. Try reading the following sentence starting with the last word and ending with the first: You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you? Palindromes are just one category of word play or language games that are fun, educational, and ideally suited to family learning. Family language activities like these benefit children by getting them to see early in life that language is something that can be played with and twisted about and turned inside out. Palindromes, anagrams, limericks, and puns are all devices that foster language creativity as well as develop one's appreciation for the creativity of others.

There are dozens of fun-filled collections of language games and puzzles available at bookstores and in the 793 section of your local library. Among my favorites are "Language On Vacation," by Dmitri Borgmann; "A Book of Puzzlements," by Herbert Kohl; "The Joy of Lex," by Gyles Brandreth; and almost any book by the master of word play, Willard Espy, especially "A Children's Almanac of Words At Play."

Dr. William F. Russell's latest book for children is Animal Families of the Wild. Send your questions and comments about Family Learning to him at P.O. Box 1279, Menlo Park, CA 94026.