Learning is child's play with colorful new games

QUIETLY appearing amid the barrage of electronic games blinking their way into the children's toy industry is a refined breed of games that don't light up , talk back, or destroy space-age opponents.

Flashy they are not, but they are the kind of games that impel junior-high students to ''cheat'' by sneaking books out of the library to give them a playing edge. At home, these colorful board and puzzle games can open worlds children may have missed in budget-tight school curriculums.

Although children usually blanch at the word ''educational,'' the serious intent of the games is cleverly disguised. Young people may find themselves learning about other cultures, art, music, history, literature, or architecture while enjoying themselves at the same time.

''You can call these games 'beyond school,' '' says Joan Cavanaugh, consultant-buyer for the children's shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. ''They're lots of fun to do, but they also have some educational content.''

Manufacturers pay careful attention to aesthetics as well as to subject matter and playability. The game boards are often detailed works of art, handsomely illustrated in vibrant colors. Some games include accompanying materials such as booklets or cassette tapes.

High-quality educational games for home use are a fledgling industry in the United States, explains Ms. Cavanaugh: ''In Europe I find a great variety of educational games are geared toward the individual development of the child, whereas the US strength has been developing educational materials for classroom use.''

Over the past few years, interested parents, educators, and former teachers around the country have begun to devise and sell imaginative games to help fill the home-learning gap in the market for school-age children.

Jan Barney Newman, a former 7th-grade English and social studies teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich., first devised board and card games with a colleague for subjects she was teaching to her classes.

''We found students learned more quickly and enthusiastically through games, '' she says. In addition to sparking interest, she found the games helped supply basic cultural knowlege students had not acquired at school or at home.

Mrs. Newman now devotes full time to her company, Aristoplay Ltd., which she founded in 1979. One of its most popular offerings is ''By Jove,'' a board game based on classical mythology. Players follow the exploits of 30 mythological characters including Helen of Troy, Venus, Apollo, and Ulysses. A book accompanying the game weaves the characters into a story format.

Two puzzle games by Aristoplay help children (and adults) learn about historic architectural styles. ''Good Old Houses'' focuses on domestic architecture, and ''Main Street'' teaches about commercial buildings found in many small towns. Both games, which can be played at different skill levels, help children identify architectural features and learn the vocabulary to describe what they see.

Mrs. Newman is currently working on an American history game in conjunction with the Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It will feature decorative arts items from the museum's collection.

''The most important thing is the games provide parents who want to interest their children in these topics with a good vehicle. It's another mode to get the information across,'' says Mrs. Newman. ''They can also have fun playing them together.''

Here are just a few of the many high-quality games with an educational theme available in museum shops, bookstores, children's specialty shops, and toy stores around the country:

* The Art Game: The Fine and Decorative Arts Trading Game by Bancroft & Barrow Inc. Players try to form collections of different types of fine and decorative arts. Forty-two miniature color reproductions include American paintings, American furniture, Oriental rugs, antique cars, art nouveau, Russian works of art, Old Masters, Japanese prints, Chinese ceramics, French furniture, and European art. $25.00.

* Music Maestro by Aristoplay Ltd., Ann Arbor, Mich. Players from preschool to adult learn the sounds, shapes, and functions of contemporary and ancient instruments. The game can be played at five different skill levels and includes a cassette tape of the instrument sounds. $20.00.

* King Hamlet by Gamevenings Company, New York. Family board game for 2-8 players. As the cover promises, ''You stalk the shadows of Elsinore Castle; race to uncover the secrets of the Ghost, the Queen, Ophelia, and Horatio; and fight duels with rivals for the throne.'' $17.00.

* Patolli: A Game of Ancient Mexico by The Kirk Game Company, Belmont, Mass. Researched and illustrated by Timothy Kendall, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A backgammon-like game originally played by the Aztecs. An illustrated booklet provides a detailed history of patolli. $16.00.

* Expedition by The Kirk Game Company. Designed to recapture the spirit of archaelogical exploration in Egypt during its heyday from 1885-1925. The object is to make more valuable discoveries than your competitors. For ages 11 and up.

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