Three 3-year-olds, attending different preschools, are busy with different activities. One is playing dress up. One is finger painting. One is playing a counting game.

Is one of these children going to be better prepared for academic success than the others?Don't be so sure, says Bruce Hershfield, director of child care for the Child Welfare League of America.

"In my experience - and for the last 25 years, I have talked to a lot of parents looking for a program - the biggest misconception around is that preschool children should be taught - and that teaching means letters, numbers, worksheets.

"But children learn through play. It is just as important for parents to sit in a sandbox with their preschoolers, measuring things in cups, as it is to sit in front of them and try to teach the ABCs."

The importance of learning through play, rather than through specific academic exercises, is a key point in the Positive Parenting program that has been prepared by the Prudential Foundation and the League, a child-welfare charity more than 80 years old.

The program for parents is available free to any preschool, nursery school or Headstart program that would like to have it. More than 3,000 guides have been distributed since the program began last fall; the goal is to reach 100,000 parents in the first year.

The program offers 12 lessons, each emphasizing different information to help parents learn to help their children develop: the importance of play, discipline, typical developmental stages, creating a calm environment, communication, learning right from wrong, building self-image, answering tough questions, protecting your child from abuse, protecting yourself from abuse, nutrition and sibling rivalry.

Each session is organized with a lesson plan for the leader and comes with "parent power pages" with suggested resources and activities. Some places will offer all 12 sessions; others pick and choose.

That's fine with Hershfield, but he hopes nobody overlooks that first lesson, stressing the importance of play. Play gives preschoolers the opportunity to master skills they will need later to enjoy school success, he said. For example, swings and tricycles develop large motor coordination; blocks develop small motor coordination. Listening to stories helps children understand sequencing. "That all leads up to conceptual learning later," he said.

Hershfield said he would be concerned about a preschool program that stressed pencil and paper work. Even though a few preschoolers enjoy it, "it's not usually appropriate," he said. And it makes parents worry if their children aren't interested.

But that worry is needless, he said. "Children develop at different stages," he said. "Your 3-year-old may do something different from another, but they are all moving through the learning curve. And it evens out. I don't think a 2-year-old who learns her letters is going to be any better off at 7 than the one who learns at 5."

Here are some Positive Parenting tips for ways that parents can accomplish some ordinary tasks in ways that include their preschoolers and help them learn through play.

- Shopping for groceries: Have your preschooler sort objects in the grocery cart. For example, put cans on one side, boxes on the other. Give your child coupons to hold and let her match the pictures with items on the shelf. Announce what item you are looking for next, and let your child help you find it.

- Reading the newspaper: Keep picture books out so your child can "read" when you do.

- Cooking: Set your child up close to you (but safe from open flame, sharp knives, etc.) with modeling play, a cookie cutter and a rolling pin. That way, he can "cook" with you.

- Cleaning house: Give your child a dust cloth, mop or broom. Let her imitate your motions. Don't expect her to be any real help - she's too young - but you'll be able to get things done, and you have a good chance to sing, talk and just enjoy each other's company.

To order the Positive Parenting curriculum, write to Bruce Hershfield at the Child Welfare League, 440 First St. NW, Third Floor, Washington, D.C., 20001-2085.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service