The shopping centers popping up on developers' maps as a ring around the ring around the city herald the growth to come.

Out on the edges of the Washington metropolitan area, places once known as destinations for a Sunday drive rapidly are becoming one end of a weekday commute and part of the ever-expanding suburbs.

In a few years, Frederick and Calvert counties in Maryland, and possibly Stafford County in Virginia and Howard County in Virginia, as well, are expected to merge into the Washington standard metropolitan statistical area. That development will mark officially what planners already knew -- that the Washington area's growth has continued to move beyond the traditional suburbs.

No growth and slow growth and energy problems notwithstanding, that pattern is expected to hold up in 1980, with families continuing to move away beyond the Beltway looking for affordable housing. Part of the impetus is more rapid job growth in areas around the Beltway than in the center, which means a shorter commute to jobs from those outlying areas.

"There's much more housing than employment growth," said Jane Rogers, director of policy development for the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments.

"It's the old case of people reacting to the housing-energy-cost spiral," she said. "They go further out to find affordable housing and agree to pay the higher cost of commuting. Then energy costs go up and make housing close to the center even less affordable," she said.

Not everyone believes that pattern will continue to the extent it existed in the past. Woodward & Lothrop's department stores have moved into the Lakeforest Mall near Gaithersburg and are committed to the Fair Oaks shopping center near Dulles. The chain is considering whether to locate in Woodbridge Mall 20 miles south of Washington.

On the whole, Woodies is cautious about moving to the exurban malls, questioning how tightly energy and economic concerns are going to rein in growth in the areas such centers would serve, said William D. McDonald Jr., vice president for marketing.

"I'm not saying we won't forever, but I'm saying the current situation is such that we will wait for a while," he said."We have a phenomenal success record in our downtown store. Why move to a marginal situation in the suburbs when we can keep and expand our downtown business?"

McDonald concedes that Woodies has a concern that other retailers less entrenched in the area might not face when considering moves to exurban malls: whether it only will transfer business from other Woodies stores in more central shopping centers.

But McDonald said his concerns go beyond that. For centers such as Fair Oaks and Woodbridge and others being built or expanded in Annapolis, Laurel, Frederick and Spotsylvania, Va., the question is how long it will take the market to grow up around them. "Lakeforest is a prime example," said McDonald, who noted that growth in the area is materializing but more slowly than anticipated.

The figures for at least one of the new shopping centers look promising. "Prince William County has experienced one of the fastest growth rates in America," said John Fransen, vice president for marketing and communications for Ernest Hahn Co. "Between 1960 and 1970 it was the fastest growing county in the U.S., and in 1970 to 1974, the county led the Washington metropolitan area in growth.

"The primary factors are development around Rtes. 95 and 66 and the availability of competitively priced housing," he said. According to the company's demographic profile of the area, there are 184 subdivisions consisting of 30,000 acres under development or developable, he said. In short, the company expects "tremendous growth" around the area where it plans to build a center that will serve as the East Coast flagship for the California-based company.

Looked at from the perspective of one of the outlying counties, one concern is getting the jobs to follow the families who move to the area. "That is our objective," said Donald Date, director of Frederick County's department of economic and community development. "Out-commutes are a bad balance of payments for anybody."

What Frederick has to offer is its location between Washington and Baltimore, the increasing number of potential employes moving into the county and a high technology base, Date said. He cited the Frederick Cancer Research Center at Ft. Detrick and the Frederick Cancer Research Center at Ft. Detrick and the Frederick Science and Technology Park being developed by Bethesda Research Labs.

Last year, 19 businesses chose either to locate or expand in Frederick, a development expected to provide approximately 4,000 new jobs in the county over the next three years. The county expects to attract more business to the area in the year to come, possibly including the first corporate headquarters to locate in the area, which once was known primarily for its dairy cattle.

Date sees promising prospects for other Maryland and Virginia counties on the rim of the Washington metropolitan area.

"Those are the counties having the largest growth, having the boom," he said. "It's not the counties immediately adjacent to Baltimore and Washington. It's the next ones out."