For years, 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds of Fairfax County have been stuck in the middle.

Too big to play with the "babies" at the elementary school summer recreation centers. Too little to play with the "big people" at the high school programs.

Now, for the first time, they have a summer recreation program all to themselves.

"I get so bored at my house because my sister's there," said Lisa McCluskey, 12, who now fingerpaints and plays whiffle ball at a new pre-teen summer center at Thoreau Intermediate School in Vienna every day. "She's little and she's boring. I came here and everybody's my own age." She tried the elementary-age program and was unimpressed: "There were too many little kids and they always have all these dumb little-kid games."

Thanks to seed money from county government, pre-teenagers now have a summer refuge from little sisters in the form of eight recreation centers designed specifically for them: Lots of pool, table tennis, whiffle ball, board games, dances, fingerpainting and pizza. Lots of pizza.

Any youngster who just finished sixth, seventh or eighth grade is eligible to join the center nearest to home for a $20 fee for the seven weeks that will end Aug. 10. The six-hour-a-day centers are at Thoreau, Herndon, Rocky Run, Holmes, Hughes and Walt Whitman intermediate schools, Edison High School and Lake Braddock Secondary School.

The program was the brainchild of Dale P. Williams, a working mother from Franconia. As Williams's two children grow older -- they just finished fourth and seventh grades -- she began looking at summertime activities that are appropriate for their ages, safe and supervised.

"I'm realizing there aren't a lot of activities in the summer for the early teens," she said. "The older teens can get jobs . . . but the younger ones, there's very little for them to do that doesn't cost big, big bucks."

At Thoreau in Vienna, Lisa and about two dozen other youngsters show up every day, glad to find a place with others their own age.

"They're not teenagers, really, and they're not really little teeny-boppers," said Ivy Marie Ellis, a 17-year veteran of the recreation department who runs the center. "It's an age group when they don't know who they are; they're trying to find themselves. This makes them feel important."

With nine brothers and sisters, 12-year-old John Updike has plenty of other kids to play with at home, if he chooses, but at the Thoreau gymnasium he finds his peers.

"Here I can get away from it all," explained John, who has playfully been awarded the nickname of "Duck" because of his large feet. "No screaming little babies. I don't have to change diapers."

The rules at "Club 78," as the center is called, are simple: Children can come and go as they please and can play any game they want for as long as they want. But they have to respect each other, and when they are disruptive they are sent to the "Acting Ugly" corner to sit for an hour alone.

"I didn't really want to come here at first because I just moved from Wisconsin," said Owen LaFave, 12. "But my mom thought it would be good for me to meet people . . . . It's better than staying at home."

That's not to say that the children are totally satisfied.

Pool and table tennis and whiffle ball are fine, but after a while, maybe there could be a little more variety, they suggested. For instance, field trips, to the zoo, the skating rink, the movies would be much appreciated.

"Put down that recreation center is boring," instructed Becky Fox, 12, who then trotted off to engage in a rollicking whiffle ball game in which she seemed to be having a fine time.

Scott Sinsel, 13, who will enter McLean High School in the fall, agreed that things have grown a little stale and complained that his peers are too much on good behavior, to the point where it isn't much fun. "Some people act like church," he said.

Isabel Castillejo, 11, had a different complaint. "The thing I hate about recreation," she declared, "is the boys. They always come up and mess up your game."

She then proceeded to squabble with Owen for about 15 minutes over a recent whiffle ball game, in one of those spirited, back-and-forth arguments that 11-year-old girls and 12-year-old boys are apt to engage in.

Recreation department worker Becky Clark laughed. Just another day at Club 78.

"It's got a lot better as the summer went along," said Clark, 18, a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary who is Ellis's aide in running the Thoreau center. "Nobody told us what to do. A lot of the ideas we got from the kids."