VALLEY Parenting : Making Playtime Productive : Book offers homemade fun to keep children entertained, allowing parents some time of their own.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Jeff Book is a Los Angeles writer.

Children at play are masters of improvisation. They can turn the simplest recreation into a zany flight of fancy. In fact, simple activities can leave more room for imagination, as Danelle Hickman found when she started taking the subject of fun seriously.

"Kids want to use their imaginations," says Hickman. "It comes naturally to them, but it still needs to be nurtured."

That's something the Studio City mother of two hopes to encourage with the book she co-authored with Northern California resident Valerie Teurlay. Considering the pressures parents face to strike a balance between their children's needs and their own, the two moms came up with "Mommytime: 101 Great Ways to Keep Your Child Entertained While You Get Something Else Done." Published by St. Martin's Press and available now in Valley bookstores in both trade paperback and pocket-size editions, "Mommytime" is a compact compendium of play ideas for kids from 2 to 7 years old.

The authors' previous work experience helped them to define and sell their concept. In the past, Hickman licensed merchandise for Disney theme parks; Teurlay worked in fashion retail.

"We thought in terms of what we'd like to buy," Hickman explains. "When we looked at what was out there, most of the books emphasized interactive play. We were interested in activities that children can do with little supervision."

They observed their kids and others playing at home and at school, and solicited ideas from seasoned care-givers such as Hickman's mother, a former grade-school teacher.

"We wanted to keep it really simple, using supplies that were inexpensive and available around the house," Hickman recalls.

The book is organized into four categories ("Indoor Play," "Outdoor Play," "Around Town" and "Special Occasions"), with a shaded clock face indicating roughly how long each activity engages youngsters.

"Mommytime" pays tribute to the truism that kids can be as happy playing with the box a toy came in as with the toy itself. Boxes big and not so big can be building blocks for play forts, tunnels, obstacle courses and Halloween haunted houses. A bottomless crate with cutouts for arms and head makes a good robot costume, which a child can customize with paint and aluminum foil. And with the addition of cutout doors, knobs and painted details, boxes can become appliances and cabinets in a pretend kitchen.

"A lot of our suggestions are old ideas that have worked for generations," says Hickman. "They're very basic, but kids never get tired of them."

A sheet draped over a table or chairs is transformed into a secret hideaway. Old socks get a second life as hand puppets or bean bags; a jump rope attached to a tree becomes a gas station for tricycles; unwanted junk mail is cargo for a make-believe mailman.

"One of my favorites is making masking-tape highways, which keeps kids from getting underfoot," Hickman says. Using tape and their toy cars, children can create a two-lane highway, with intersections and right- and left-hand turns, drawing stop signs on the tape.

The homemade fun extends to safe and easy recipes for clay, paint, glue, paste and bubble soap.

But not all the tips are low-tech. The authors suggest making personalized video- and audiotapes incorporating favorite songs, cartoons and stories (read by Grandma, for example).

Darlene Daniel of Pages, a Tarzana bookstore for children and young adults, considers "Mommytime" a standout among the activity books they stock. According to Daniel, "It's a much better way to entertain kids than sitting them in front of a screen. It's an opportunity for them to develop their inner resources, to make up their own stories."

This was, of course, exactly what the authors had in mind. "A lot of kids," says Hickman, "especially ones from affluent families, have so many toys, so many planned activities. Parents have to learn not to over-structure their children's time, so the kids can learn what to do on their own--and maybe appreciate what they have instead of asking for more."

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