Play is so important for both children and adults that three new books tell readers how to do it better. Julie Hagstrom, a southern California mother of two pre-schoolers, has now added Traveling Games for Babies to her ''Games Babies Play'' series (New York: A&W Publishers, $4.95). This well-illustrated paperback offers specific games as well as sensible advice to parents who must keep small children amused and occupied for mile after mile of travel. Chapters are organized by age, from infants to age five. The book also offers hints on how to organize a car travel kit, buy infant carriers and car seats, and find the right inexpensive toys and on-the-road snacks.
Mrs. Hagstrom, an elementary-school teacher, developed her three books out of the experiences she and her husband, Jerry, have had with their daughters Amy, five, and Julie, two.
''My mother was so impressed with all the ways we found to play and get acquainted with Amy that four years ago she urged me to write a book to help other young parents learn how to play with their own babies,'' the author explained during a phone interview. ''She even helped me write 'Games Babies Play.' We knew nothing about getting a book published, so we simply sent it out to A&W. It was accepted immediately. The publisher later asked for the second volume, 'More Games Babies Play,' so my mother was right about our meeting a need for others.''
Amy and Julie have been going on camping trips and other travels with their parents since they were only a few months old. As a result the Hagstroms have become masters of car organization and uninhibited dramatic ''hams'' when it comes to play-acting with puppets and storytelling.
''Of all the toys we travel with, our children have probably loved the puppets most,'' Mrs. Hagstrom says. ''We have several, including their favorite brown dog puppet with floppy ears and a lolling tongue. My husband and I talk through them to entertain the girls, and hug and tickle and giggle with them.''
She explains how the children, inspired by all this imaginative make-believe, find their own little games to play. For instance, two-year-old Katie announced one morning, as she wiggled her toes, ''Hello. I'm a foot.'' Her mother replied, ''Well, how do you do, foot? Do you think you can find your way into your sock?'' That day, ''foot'' did a lot of talking, and Mamma, without missing a beat, did a lot of responding. But it was Daddy who finally suggested that it was probably time for Julie to put ''foot'' to bed.
The author makes little travel books by tearing the toy sections out of catalogs and stapling the pages together between covers. Children, she says, will browse for hours through such a book, making conversation from the pictures they see in it. The Hagstroms use most of their games not only for fun and distraction, but to teach children colors, numbers, and words.
Another hit with traveling babies is what Mrs. Hagstrom calls her ''Can O' Fun.'' This is simply a three-pound can with a plastic lid, filled with an assortment of baby-size items such as small blocks, plastic farm animals, spongy bath toys, ping-pong balls, thread spools, and other household odds and ends. Since the author sometimes measures her diversions by the number of miles they will keep a little traveler occupied, she estimates that a can of such surprises , handed out one at a time, and explained and discussed, can easily use up a hundred or so miles.
She also finds a small, inexpensive tape recorder useful for entertaining babies-on-the-go. She always packs a selection of favorite recorded songs and stories, and a blank tape or two on which children can make their own recordings along the way.''Of course, children can often entertain themselves with books and tapes,'' Mrs. Hagstrom says. ''But we find that what they enjoy most is having the total attention and the big, warm body of a parent close beside them. Snuggling up is, to a child, often the best part of the game he is playing. We feel we have really come to know our children through taking the time to sit down and play with them and through letting them feel that we are all exploring a wonderful world of sights and sounds together.''Two other young mothers, Joan Barnes and Susan D. Astor, have written a paperback called Gymboree (New York: Doubleday, $9.95). Mrs. Barnes, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., with her husband and two children, is president of Gymboree Corporation, which operates 18 franchises in California cities, and also is publisher of Gymboree Gazette newsletter. Her coauthor, Mrs. Astor, a former nursery-school teacher, lives in Great Neck, N.Y., where she directs a parent-toddler program at the Gymnastics Center. Umberto Tosi's photographs of children in action are sheer delight and a rich addition to this book.The volume itself is about helping children from the ages three months to four years develop their abilities to perceive, understand, and act on the world around them. It describes a play-activity program for parents and children that stimulates natural learning in an environment designed with a balance beams, slides, tunnels, balls, rollers, scooters, hoops, and ladders.''I found there was little help for parents facing the special challenges of those early years, '' says Mrs. Barnes, ''so we opened our first Gymboree Center in northern California in 1975. We began to teach parents how to incorporate the games, songs, and other play activities that we demonstrated at Gymboree into their own home routines. We showed fathers and mothers how to share more fully the fun of their children's progress and growth.''The book talks a lot about ''sensory-motor learning'' which seems a mouthful when applied to such small people, but the idea is that children learn many physical and mental skills through play. Despite a certain psychological orientation, there is plenty to recommend the book, not the least of which are the words and music for dozens of songs that young children love. Information about centers and publications is available from Gymboree Corporation, 808 Burlway Road, Suite 207 , Burlingame, Calif. 94010.Since people of all ages love to play games, More New Games has been published by Dolphin for Doubleday & Co. in New York, in a $6.95 paperback edition. This book is from the New Games Foundation, PO Box 7901, San Francisco, Calif. 94110, an unusual nonprofit foundation established in 1974 to foster and communicate a style of play that focuses on participation, creativity , and community. The first ''New Games Book'' came out in 1975. This second volume is a sampling of the 60 best new games collected from more than a million players who have participated in training workshops, festivals, and tournaments conducted in citids across North America and in Europe and Australia. All the games involve some physical activity.New games described in this latest book include those with such engaging titles as Octopus, Space Chase, Data Processing , Cookie Machine, Yurt Circle, Mime Rhyme, Willow in the Wind, and Crab Grab.Nancy Kretz, present director of the foundation, says it is now supported by donations, sales revenues, and fees from training programs. A three-year grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided the seed money to develop the training program. The first New Games Trainers Conference took place at Marin Headlands in California in 1978. More than 14,000 people have now been trained in more than 100 cities across the United States. They not only teach others how to play but also emphasize a basic philosophical approach to recreation and play that is far wider than the boundaries of any game, says the foundation director.