At first glance, it could be a 16th-century version of a modern schoolyard. A piggyback tug of war is going on just in front of a game of leapfrog. Two girls play with dolls, another is in a wedding costume. One can imagine the cacophony: the grunts of the wrestling boys, the echoing hallos of a girl shouting into a hollow barrel, the frenzied teasing of blindman's buff.
But look more closely at Bruegel's 1560 painting ''Children's Games,'' as Edward Snow, a professor of English at Rice University, does in ''Inside Bruegel'' (North Point Press), and something unsettling emerges. Bruegel treats the children of this bizarre urban landscape as if they were younger versions of his more familiar burghers, peasants and ecclesiastics.
Some scenes bear an eerie resemblance to icons of religious suffering -- a monk whipping a penitent, a Christ being taunted with a crown of thorns. Others are clearly rehearsals for adulthood. Whether acting out a bridal procession or fanning the flames at a burning stake, these earnest children are adults in training. As Mr. Snow points out, the play takes place on the border of adulthood as children try on roles, test limits.
This is unsettling to contemporary eyes because we no longer see children as Bruegel did. A contemporary version of ''Children's Games'' -- aside from including Barbie dolls with downloaded voices and video games about mutant cyborgs -- might well include plenty of adults following the games of children each step of the way. Instead of children aspiring to adulthood, it can sometimes seem as if contemporary adulthood aspires to childhood.