On a sunny Friday morning, Ellicott Mills Middle School is alive with busy, excited, happy children. And this is July.
On the school's stage, a group of young musicians is working on a rendition of the jazz standard, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," with instructor and well-known jazz musician Carl Grubbs.
Down the hall, eight preteen and early teen fashionistas, wearing outfits they designed themselves, are prancing across the gymnasium floor, preparing for their end-of-the-week fashion show.
And in the school's spacious, well-equipped home economics room, about 20 apron-wearing elementary-age boys and girls are slicing and dicing and frying and blending as they prepare a lunch of cold raspberry soup and zucchini lasagna.
In other words, it's just another day of summer camp in Howard County, where the tradition of summer camps for children has exploded into a dizzying potpourri of offerings designed to fit every interest.
This year, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks is offering some 250 separate summer camps in an array of categories that includes nature and outdoors, crafts and fine arts, science and technology, and a whole lot more. That's about 10 percent more camps than last year.
"We try to be as creative as we can with our offerings," said Laura Wetherald, chief of recreation and administrative services for Recreation and Parks. "We try to meet as many needs as possible. We want to touch all the bases. … We keep the popular camps from year to year, but each year we come up with new ideas and programs."
"Some stuff is pretty consistent, like our sports stuff, soccer programs — you can only change it so much," said Danielle Bassett, a recreation manager with the Recreation and Parks Department. "But with art and programs like that, you can do different themes, different types of mediums, so you do try to change it up each summer to have a fresh look."
With the large number of working parents and single-parent families, more and more parents are looking for ways to keep their children occupied in the summer, Wetherald said.
"There's more and more of a need for this, so we continue to grow," she said. "It's all based on demand and need. We wouldn't offer all these if we didn't see the need."
Worth the cost
The camps, which run through late August, are held in a variety of settings across Howard County, including schools, parks, community centers and even some private businesses. Several of this year's new music camps, for example, are being held at the Olenka School of Music, in Columbia.
Depending on the length and equipment needed, the camps range in cost from slightly below $100 to closer to $400. Science camps, which often require special equipment, and the adventure camps, which involve traveling, tend to be more expensive, according to Bassett.
Some financial assistance is available for lower-income families or children with disabilities. And judging from the number of registrations — 14,432 as of last week, nearly 20 percent more than the previous year — parents believe the experience is worth the cost.
Hwei-Siu Payer, of Ellicott City, had no qualms about registering her 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, in the weeklong fashion design camp at Ellicott Mills Middle. Natalie took the class last week with a friend.
"If they didn't come here, they'd probably be sitting at home and playing on the computer, so it's worth it," Payer said. "And who knows, maybe someday she'll become a fashion designer and go to Paris.
"The girls were so excited," Payer added of Natalie and her friend. "With other things, like reading and math, I have to push Natalie. But this — she's always working on it, always drawing. I had to tell her to go to bed."
Paging through the notebook of drawings she created during camp, Natalie confirmed both her excitement and her interest in fashion design. "I would definitely do a fashion camp again," she said.
Most of the children who attend the camps are from Howard County — slightly more than 93 percent so far this year, according to registration figures. But Recreation and Parks officials say the camps also draw campers from surrounding counties, most often Baltimore County, and sometimes further away.
"We have a student who comes from New Hampshire," said Curtis Ramsey, assistant director of the children's cooking camp, known as Junior Chefs, "every year."
Besides a smorgasbord of delights for children (and the parents eager to keep them occupied), the summer camp program has become big business.
Wetherald said more than 500 seasonal employees were hired for this year's camps. In addition, the county uses a small army of middle and high school students as volunteer junior counselors — 129 this year — who get both work experience and service hours for their efforts.
Some of the counselors and instructors seem to enjoy the camp as much as the children.
"This is the highlight of my summer," said Ramsey, who has been working in the junior chefs program since it began eight years ago.
"The kids come in with a lot of preconceived notions of food, but that can change. I love to see the expressions on their faces when they taste something we prepare and say, 'Hey, I really do like spinach!' "
Like the other camps, junior chefs is meant to be both instructional and interesting.
"We integrate proper kitchen etiquette into the camp," Director Kisha Foy said. "We teach them how to use a knife, emphasize the cleanest way of using food. The biggest thing we emphasize is, 'Keep your hands clean.' "
Later in the class, Foy provides examples of the instruction.
She is helping 8-year-old Ethan Oh cut up onions for the zucchini lasagna, and he's having a tough time.
"We're going to retire that knife," she tells Ethan, a student at Worthington Elementary School. The boy's eyes widen as she takes away the knife he is using and hands him a larger, sharper knife, but she guides his hand in a smooth cutting motion, and the dicing moves a lot faster.
"Very good," Foy tells him when he's done, and then sends him off to wash his hands.
But this is summer camp, after all, so besides the lessons in dicing onions and hand cleaning, it's also meant to be enjoyable.
At the kitchen sink, Ethan is asked how he enjoys cooking camp.
"It's fun," he says.
And what's the most fun?
"We get to watch movies — like 'Ratatouille.' "
For a complete listing of summer camps, including descriptions and fees, go to howardcountymd.gov/ANOcamps.htm.