Four-year-old Meg Bittinger can check one item off her wish list thanks to the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department: She is learning to use a bow and arrow like her idol, Princess Merida, the heroine of the 2012 Disney movie "Brave."
Amy Bittinger, who lives in Elkridge, said her daughter "is really into princesses, but I want her to have a diversity of interests."
Archery lessons would please both of them, she reasoned, and so she became the first to register her child for the February session of Lil' Archers, an introductory class for 4- and 5-year-olds that uses rubber-tipped arrows. Previously, county recreation classes started at age 9.
Matt Medicus, the county's adventure, nature and outdoors supervisor, said Lil' Archers is, in part, a response to Merida's popularity with younger kids — just as the character of Katniss Everdeen in the "The Hunger Games" movie inspired a wave of older youths to pursue archery lessons.
But the county was already monitoring an uptick in demand for archery courses by kids and adults alike over the last three years, before either of those films arrived in theaters, Medicus said. That trend — along with a steady flow of citizen requests for a place to practice — has prompted the county to propose a target archery range for Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville.
A public hearing on the archery range proposal will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at department headquarters, 7120 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia, and will include a presentation summarizing the proposal, followed by an opportunity to comment.
In spring 2011, the county offered one class that attracted 10 youths, Medicus said. By fall 2013, 18 classes were scheduled for children and adults, drawing 250 participants.
The 20-year employee said he "isn't surprised" by the steady growth in registrants, because there are no public archery facilities in the county, and archery is prohibited in county parks.
That's where the Alpha Ridge proposal comes in. If approved, the semi-permanent range would have five target butts and be located on the lower of two roller hockey rinks at Alpha Ridge, which is located off Old Frederick Road.
The popularity of roller hockey has been dwindling for years, Medicus said, though a pre-engineered roof is already in the works for the larger upper rink to allow for use in inclement weather.
"The fact that we'd be reusing an underutilized space means the cost to do this is only $3,000," he said. "We've studied the project for a year, and that's a fairly minimal cost."
Installing the range will permit the county to add new target archery programs and also allow for possible drop-in range time, Medicus said. Maintenance and staffing costs will be determined by level of use.
During a recent Lil' Archers class at the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex in Ellicott City, Rachel Smith of Cooksville said her 5-year-old son, Gavin, had taken the same two-session class last month and loved it. She said he's come a long way already.
"The first time that he was instructed to let go of the arrow, he let go of the whole thing," she said, smiling. At the recent session, he hit the target numerous times.
Gavin had asked for a bow-and-arrow set for Christmas, but "mommy said 'no.' With two younger sisters in the house, it was purely a family safety issue," Smith said with a laugh.
Safety is the reason the proposed target archery range would be fenced in, locked when not in use and supervised when open, Medicus said as he observed the class.
"We're teaching instinctive target archery, or Olympic archery," Medicus said, explaining that means students don't use sights or other gadgets like bow hunters do.
"We're shooting the way we've been shooting for thousands of years, going back to [ancient times] when bows were used for hunting and in warfare," he said.
Natalie Goebel of Ellicott City said her 4-year-old son, Colin, inherited her good aim and eye-hand coordination, so she knew he'd be good at the sport.
"Plus, he's just so excited to try anything new," she said.
Ann Finneran said she'd taken her daughter, Keira, 5, for lessons at Rockburn Park last summer — the first time classes were offered for ages 4 and 5 — "because of Merida, obviously," but also because Keira's been influenced by her 10-year-old sister, Bailey, who loves archery.
"What I like is that it's an individual sport" that doesn't require a team or a field, the Columbia resident said.
While preapproved parking, lighting and restroom improvements will soon start at Alpha Ridge, as will the expansion of nature trails, Medicus said the earliest the archery range could be put in place is the fall.
The only hole in course offerings left to fill is classes for 6- to 8-year-olds, he added, which the county plans to do "as soon as we find a good equipment solution" that's age-appropriate.
Those who are interested in speaking at Wednesday's hearing of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board can register at howardcountymd.gov/publiccomment.htm, or use the same site to provide written testimony online. For more information, call 410-313-4700.