AT a time when most people are just finishing breakfast, Shari Lewis has already been a guest on two local radio shows and is poised for her third interview of the day. After more than three decades as an entertainer, this petite, energetic woman is still going strong. Baby-boomers will no doubt remember Ms. Lewis's early days on television in the 1950s as a ventriloquist and puppeteer (who could forget her sidekick, the inimitable Lambchop?), and many may also be familiar with another of her many talents - that of symphony conductor. But now, with 35 books and seven videos for children to her credit, Lewis is busy becoming familiar to a whole new generation of kids.
Her latest project, ``101 Things for Kids to Do,'' is a collection of jokes, magic tricks, word games, simple puppets, riddles, and so forth for children five years old and up. It's available in two formats - an hour-long video (Random House Home Video, Beta, VHS, $21.50) and a 90-page book (Random House, $6.95).
Of her many undertakings, Lewis calls this project ``frankly my favorite,'' but adds that she takes no credit for it: ``It's all my daddy's stuff.... I dedicated it to him.''
Actually, she deserves a lot of credit. The video is appealing: It's cleverly put together and brimming with interesting and fun things for children (and many a grown-up).
Lewis's father, Abraham Hurwitz, for many years the official magician of New York City, first got interested in magic as a schoolteacher during the depression. ``He believed that you can get kids to do absolutely anything if they're interested in doing it,'' Lewis says, settling back on the sofa. Stumped at how to get his students interested in schoolwork, she says, he learned magic to help them with their studies. ``He would teach kids math magic and get them hooked on numbers, and he'd teach kids chemistry magic in order to get them to learn formulas.''
In addition to providing entertainment, Lewis says, learning magic tricks and stunts and riddles also boost children's self-esteem.
``In the first place, it's terrific for kids' dexterity. For their ability to remember. For their ability to follow instructions. But most important ... every kid should feel that he or she knows something that no one else knows - [that they can] do something extra special. What it does for a kid's self-esteem to be able to say, `I did it, I made it, I am more competent than I thought' is wonderful. So that's really the point of it.''
From her perspective as a veteran entertainer (and the mother of a grown daughter), Lewis has observed and worked with many children over the years. She says that kids today are not much different from those 20 years ago - they laugh at the same things, for instance - but that their attention spans are shorter.
``We're bringing up kids who can't sit for more than a few minutes and watch something. That's not good, because any achievement - any achievement - takes focus,'' she asserts.
``The best thing that's happened to kids is television - and the worst thing that's happened to kids is television,'' she says. The best thing in her opinion, she explains, is the broadened vocabularies and expanded frames of references TV affords children. The worst thing, she feels, is that it's turning kids into consumers, not doers.
``Kids are now forgetting how to play. And this is not what I'm saying, this is what all the studies are showing, that kids have actually forgotten how to play - that kids don't do the street play, the sports play. Our kids have become consumers.
``They may talk about it, but they don't act it out. Studies are showing that kids consume music instead of making music. Fewer and fewer kids have the patience for their practice - which is a disaster for their lives. And fewer and fewer kids are doing active sports ... they don't read books, do crafts. It's very important that kids be stimulated. That's the point of this tape.''
The refrain ``Do it, don't view it'' echoes throughout the hour-long video, underscoring this assertion. And in fact, Lewis makes the tricks and stunts look so interesting that you feel compelled to turn off the tube and try them yourself.
``There are a couple of things in `101 Things for Kids to Do' that my husband said, `You're not going to put that chestnut in,''' she says with a laugh. ``Well, as I travel, the things kids talk about are `I thought it was so funny when Hush Puppy said, ``I can spell my name backwards,'' and then he turns his back and spells his name' - well, that's what kids laugh at. And I was so fulfilled when some kids ran up to us in the street and said that the other day, and I turned to my husband and said, `Ha ha ha,' because he really fought me on that one. He said, `You can't put that in' and I said, `If you're 7, and you haven't heard it, it's a new joke!'''