Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt with a skateboarder on the front, long red shorts and white sneakers, Kevin Burgess, 5, removed a baby doll from a bin, put her in a toy highchair and pretended to feed her yellow letters from a bowl - all under the close supervision of a little girl dressed in bright pink.
Nearby, children waited patiently to help mix batter for pancakes, while others made spiders by pushing pipe cleaners through soft Styrofoam packing peanuts before gluing them to art paper adorned with glitter.
This is the six-week summer enrichment program for 36 of Howard County's Head Start graduates, who are busy having fun in two Ellicott City classrooms while they get ready to begin kindergarten next month. The daily classes - including weekly swimming outings and field trips to places such as the Baltimore Zoo - run from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
"It's a little more advanced" than school-year classes for 3- and 4 year-olds, said Jena Smith, education co-coordinator for the county's Head Start program. "We bump up the challenge."
The children are tested to determine their strengths and weaknesses so they can prepare to learn to read.
"You get to work with the older children, work with things they need the most," said Charleen Gibson, a Head Start teacher's assistant working with 11 children on a recent morning in a well-equipped room on the lower level of the county's Rockland Arts Center on High Ridge Road.
Teacher Amanda Rossell and teen volunteer Tommy Rice, a Glenelg Country School student, also worked with the children in a classroom.
Each activity - from singing to listening to stories - was spiked with educational tidbits aimed at reinforcing what the kids have been learning about the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, as well as about numbers, colors and the calendar.
The children were asked how to spell "July," what day of the week it was, what sound saying a "W" requires, what the number for the day is on the calendar, and what color to put on a classroom calendar to mark the day.
Howard's $1.7 million Head Start program enrolled 264 children this past school year for classes in three county locations, a small part of Maryland's $76 million program that served 10,235 children from low-income families in fiscal year 2003.
Howard's summer enrichment program's principal sponsor is the Ellicott City Rotary Club, which provides volunteers and about $20,000 of the $34,000 needed to pay the teachers and to provide bus transportation, breakfast and lunch. Columbia's Horizon Foundation provided startup funding for the first two years of the three-year-old program.
Rotary member and Howard County Executive James N. Robey dropped by Wednesday to share breakfast and read the children the book Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle.
"We looked at where we could focus some meaningful attention," said Ron Carlson, a Rotary past president and co-founder of the Head Start summer program. "We're very, very pleased with it."
Carlson said that the club would like to help the program grow, a goal shared by Community Action Council Director Dorothy L. Moore, whose agency administers Head Start.
"Hopefully next summer we'll have that at Dasher Green," she said of the county's newest Head Start facility, located next to Cradlerock School in Columbia's Owen Brown village.
More Head Start classrooms are in the school board's Harriet Tubman building.
Moore told Robey the state likes the summer program and has agreed to provide $76,000 more to help expand services next year.
The day of Robey's visit, Rice read the children another book, describing how the ingredients for pancakes would be assembled from scratch on an old-fashioned farm.
The book described how wheat is made into flour, how milk comes from a cow, how butter is churned from cream, and how a fire is built for cooking. Then the children learned what utensils they would need, and got ready to actually make pancakes on an electric griddle.
Kevin, who lives in Glenwood, said he likes coming to Head Start, although he quickly added he likes being at home just as much.
His mother, Margaret Burgess, said the program has helped her sometimes-shy son. He will start kindergarten at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary next month, she said.
"It's built up his confidence. He loves it here," she said.