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Summer camps downtown provide a creative outlet

As you start planning your summer calendar with activities and child care for your kids, be sure to consider the camps at the St. Petersburg Arts Center on Central Avenue. The non-profit center offers 10 weeks of art camp, each with a different theme.

If you sign up for the "Cruise the Mediterranean" camp, your child may make a stained glass window of tissue paper or create a knight's armor out of tinfoil and papier-mache. If you choose "Caravan Through Africa," the children may paint native masks using blueberries and leaves or mold animals out of clay. If they "Sail Down the Nile," they may make a pyramid out of gift boxes and then paint it gold and decorate it with jewels.

"We want to give them the idea that art is not a really defined thing," said Rob Giordano, who heads up youth programs and outreach for the Arts Center. "A lot of kids think if they can't draw really well, they aren't good at art."

The camps are for ages 4 to 12. The 4- and 5-year-olds go half-days from 9 to 11:30 a.m. or 12:30 to 3 p.m. at a cost of $60 a week for members and $75 for non-members. Kids 6 to 12 go from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Members pay $120 and non-members pay $145. Extended care before and after the camps is available.

The Arts Center offers scholarships on a first-come, first-served basis. Last year, 27 children went free of charge, and there could be more openings this year depending on sponsorships.

The children do individual and group projects at their own speed in painting, clay and mixed media. Mixed media ranges from burlap and yarn to papier-mache and old McDonald's Happy Meal toys. And remember those giant foam Devil Rays hand puppets that they used to sell at the games? Last year the manufacturer donated rolls and rolls of unused foam the children transformed into giraffe and elephant heads they wore during the African week.

"The idea is for them to sample all different ways to express themselves," said Donna Fletcher, the Arts Center's deputy director.

After the children's own amazing creativity, teachers are the key to the camp's success, Fletcher said. The Arts Center recruits teachers each summer who work with children and have a love of art. Most are art teachers or artists or both. Teenage volunteers from around the city also help in classrooms. The children are divided into classes based on age. Each has 18 or fewer students.

Giordano said he is always surprised at the ideas and projects teachers come up with each week based on the theme and whatever materials are available.

During the "Renaissance" week last year, he walked into one classroom to find the 4- and 5-year-olds lying on their backs under tables drawing on paper taped to the underside of the tabletops. They excitedly told him they were painting just like Michelangelo. During the Rainforest camp, one teacher brought in tapes with sounds of the rainforest including rain, frogs and birds. She turned off the lights, played the tapes and had the children draw what they heard and felt.

It all sounded fabulous. But then I pictured my "outside-the-lines" daughter drawing rain, then an umbrella, then a duck, then a farm, then why not a tractor and then, of course, an airplane. These themes are great, but what if a child strays off course?

"They are guided in what they do so that it's not a free-for-all," Giordano said. "But they will stray (from the theme), and that's fine.

"My main goal is for every child to be safe and happy. We want no hurt feelings and we keep a very close watch on that," he said. Praise is a big component of the program.

With so many options this summer, I asked Giordano why art camp is something parents should want to invest in.

"Art builds confidence," he said. "The sense of accomplishment a child gets when he finishes a piece and is praised by everyone in the room _ which is very big here _ cannot help but build self-esteem a lot."

Before coming to the Arts Center three years ago, Giordano taught emotionally disturbed children in New Jersey. There was no funding for an art teacher or art classroom, so Giordano worked art into the regular classroom curriculum.

"When I would do that, they were amazing," he said. "They were given a new way to express themselves and see what they could do. Art is very therapeutic."

Another reason for the Arts Center camp is the variety of kids who attend. Last year 2,800 children went to the camps, so your child is sure to meet someone from a school or neighborhood different from his or her own. A lot of children go to three or four different weeks of camp, though some do one.

The 4- and 5-year-olds have a snack break when they eat something brought from home or buy a treat from the snack stand. (Apparently this is a pretty big deal for them to buy their own thing without Mom or Dad, though teachers and aides help count the money and oversee the transaction.)

The younger children will also enjoy singing, parades, story time and dancing to help break up the day. They stay in one huge classroom with children's furniture except when they go outside under a tent for their snack.

The older children change classrooms for their different media _ paint, mixed media and clay. They also have a short session of art history each day. They eat outside as well, so pack something cool in those lunch boxes.

The Arts Center has offered its summer camps for several years, but this summer should be very different. More than 20,000 square feet has been added to the now-35,000-square-foot center. The $3.5-million expansion has been a year and a half in the making. The center receives funding from the state, county, city and donors.

There will be an art show at the end of the summer for campers to bring their parents and show off some of the group projects. Parents will also be invited to an open house before camps start so they can see what their kids will be doing each day. The Arts Center will hold its annual Family Day on May 6, which will feature art projects for children to make on the spot and take home.

But if you wait until then to sign up for camp, many weeks will probably already be full. For more information about the center or details about what to expect from each of the different one-week camps, call (727) 822-7872 or click on Teenagers interested in volunteering should contact the Arts Center, too.

A family membership at the Arts Center, by the way, costs $45 a year and includes discounts to adult and youth classes, and discounts on purchases and invitations to shows. Summer family memberships are available for $25.

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at, or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call (727) 822-7225.