IT'S the day after Christmas and all through the house Nintendos are flashing and banging - and scaring the mouse. Nintendo, the best-selling toy in 1987 and 1988, comes with games called ``Rush 'n Attack,'' ``Commando,'' and ``Contra.'' More than 80 percent of the games have a violent theme.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of the most popular toys of the year: A commercial for the toy urges young viewers to ``Reach out and crush someone.''
Games of battle and rivalry apparently have an enduring fascination for young minds. In 1988, 13 million toy guns were sold, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America in New York.
``Cowboys and Indians'' and ``Cops and Robbers'' have prowled the playful imagination of generation after generation of children. But have the children of today been pushed and prodded into play that limits their imagination and encourages aggression?
Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin, the authors of a new book, ``Who's Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys,'' are voicing their concerns.
``We've called the book `Who's Calling the Shots,''' says Dr. Levin, ``because in a sense we feel that children are shooting but they are not calling the shots.''
The two educators' ideas about the nature of war play have evolved over their seven-year research partnership.
``We didn't assume it [war play] was negative at all in the beginning, says Dr. Carlsson-Paige. ``In fact, quite the contrary. I think we started out with this war-play issue with an assumption that war play had developmental interests for children and served some of their developmental needs.''
Their original assumptions were forcibly modified as they began research through interviews and questionnaires sent out to teachers and parents.
``As we started talking to parents and teachers, we started hearing concerns that sounded different from our own experience with war play. We started hearing things like kids seem to be obsessed with it. We always heard about TV characters coming into the play. We heard people who had known children for many years say that something's different now,'' says Levin.
The deregulation of television in the early 1980s is the culprit in much of this, according to the coauthors.
In 1984 controls were lifted on the number of advertising minutes permissible per hour of programming. Then, in 1985 the Federal Communications Commission reversed an earlier ruling and stated that product-based programming is legal. Quickly, television shows and the toy store shelves began to share the same characters.
The proliferation of product-based programming changed the nature of toys and children's play, says Levin. ``For many children, the effect is that they have lost control over a lot of what happens in their play.... Instead they are imitating things they see [on television] rather than acting out and creating play that's their own.''
The evolution of toys from a simple rag doll, erector sets, and blocks to Nintendo, GI Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle injects an entirely new approach to play. The contemporary, sophisticated toys are less open-ended and often prescribe a single purpose.
``I think some of the basic toys are now more important than they were back when they may have been popular,'' says Jack Lochhead, director of the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass. ``We're beginning to have a society in which the types of devices that we come into in our everyday experience don't give us the tinkering background that used to be so important to developing the engineering ingenuity of this country.''
Dr. Lochhead promotes the idea of getting back to ``smart toys'' - toys such as wooden blocks and basic dolls, which stimulate imaginations by providing a variety of options for play.
Research on the effects of aggressive war play on children is scarce. One school of thought suggests that it is natural and helpful for children to work out their feelings about aggression through war play; the other side argues that war play elicits more aggressive behavior than normal from youngsters.
Malcolm Watson, an associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., would like to see all toy guns outlawed. His research has shown a connection between aggressive behavior and playing with toy guns among boys. The cause-and-effect relationship is not clear, however. Dr. Watson says that boys who play with toy guns frequently may tend to be more aggressive by nature.
``I think that pretend play and fantasy is a wonderful thing for kids,'' says Watson. ``I just don't think it should have to be the violent kind.''
Many of the toys on the typical toy-store shelf today are not anything that a child would conceive of on his own.
``They [the toys] really manifest the ideas of adults - of marketing people who take one development interest of a child and make it into something that represents much more of an adult imagination than a child's,'' says Carlsson-Paige.
Part of the danger is that the narrowly defined toys that are commercially sold create a dichotomy between boys' toys and girls' toys.
``It's a male doll that shoots; it's a male doll that has weapons,'' says Carlsson-Paige. ``And it's a female doll that's helpless, or sexy, or combs her hair,'' interjects Levin.
Along with the influences of television and commercially marketed toys, children have less time to play than they once did. Contemporary lifestyles dictate scheduled time and less room for spontaneous play with neighbors and siblings.
Parents need to support their children's play as much as possible, says Levin. ``Who's Calling the Shots'' suggests ways that parents can encourage their children to keep their imaginations alive in their play. (See related story.)
Parents should remember their governing role when selecting and buying toys for their children, says Watson. ``Just because a child sees something on TV and wants it ... you don't have to go with it.''