LINCOLN, MASS. — ART museums are typically quiet havens where visitors stroll in contemplative silence. But at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, a contemporary art center, people are giggling their way through the galleries, chuckling at an ``Iron Maiden'' made of kitchen utensils, a chicken wishbone that ``walks,'' and Andy Warhol-like puppets playing bongos. Is this art or FAO Schwarz? Sheer fun is on the loose in this exhibition of toys by artists. Finely crafted puppets, scooters, pull-toys, and mechanical gizmos turn the museum into a virtual children's nursery, brimming with day-glo colors. Whimsical giraffes and canine creatures sit on the floor for the viewing ease of tiny museumgoers, while winged contraptions fly overhead. Even Santa's elves would jump with glee. The show ``brings out a side of people, especially adults, that isn't normally brought out when looking at art,'' says Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, senior curator at the museum, in an interview. Adding to the fun are the bunches of kids scampering around - particularly in ``The Playpen'' gallery, where they are allowed to handle, ride, and play make-believe with some of the sturdier art objects. The DeCordova invited 50 artists from the Northeast to participate in this show called ``Playing Around: Toys By Artists,'' on view through April 7. They have varied backgrounds - furniture makers, sculptors, craftspeople, multimedia artists, and full-time toymakers. ``Artists have always made toys,'' says Ms. Rosenfield Lafo, citing Alexander Calder's ``The Circus'' - a collection of animals and figures made from wood, metal, and wire. ``Many times it starts as a personal thing,'' she explains, with artists making fanciful items for themselves, family, or friends' children. Her own visits to artists' studios revealed a ``surprising number'' of artful toys in the making, she says. ``We thought it would be fun to see how many artists were doing that,'' Rosenfield Lafo adds. When the museum's request for slides went out, submissions flooded in. ``We were amazed at how much work was out there,'' she says. In narrowing down the selections, museum officials decided to judge the objects for their playful qualities. ``We saw lots of silly sculptures that were wonderful,'' says Nick Capasso, assistant curator, ``but they didn't have that toy-like charm.'' He was looking for ``objects that cried out to be played with.'' Of course, most of the toys on display are not for Junior. The zany, motorized wire sculptures of Arthur Ganson, for instance, which creep and bob along their shelves, might crumple even in adult hands (only docents are allowed to operate them.) Even though playing and handling of them are prohibited, such toys ``can still engage the imagination in that way,'' remarks Mr. Capasso. ``The whole concept of play is an extremely strong presence in human life and is certainly a concept worthy of addressing by artists,'' Capasso continues. ``We devote 13 or 14 years of our lives to unselfconscious play,'' and even for adults, the act of playing ``is an extremely important part of life.'' Another spectacle in the show is ``Toy Tower for a Tall Tot,'' by Peter R. Thibeault. With the skill of an architect, the artist has layered row upon row of antique blocks, dominoes, dice, and game boards to form a tapering monolith reaching to the ceiling. Among the hands-on toys in the Playpen gallery are Ross Miller's ``Snapazoos'' - soft, lovable animals made out of stuffed knit velour. Anyone can make a turtle, dragon, or lobster by folding different sides of the velour and snapping them together. ``I initially made them for that child part of myself and for friends,'' says Mr. Miller, whose primary work is outdoor sculpture. Bending and snapping one in his hands as he talked, Miller said he has made as many as 45 creatures out of one particular Snapazoo model. ``These kind of look like wings of a butterfly,'' said 8-year-old Lauren Kleutsch, forming some pointy shapes with a Snapazoo lying on the floor. ``It could be lots of things depending on how you look at it.'' Multimedia artist Marcella Stasa said she was amazed at how much time children visiting the museum spend with her ``Wooly-Arty'' magnetic board. It is a beautiful glass box full of tiny, fanciful bits of junk (silver beads, chains, window points) that can be arranged into bizarre patterns with a hand-held magnet. Mrs. Stasa, who admits she still loves her Etch-a-Sketch, calls her art ``participatory.'' ``I'd hate for it to be sitting still and untouched,'' she says. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/ltoy.