This summer, a six-room, white wood-frame house in Woodbridge has become teenage heaven.
The house, headquarters of the Lighthouse day camp, features a comfy blue sofa in the front room, televisions hooked up to both Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, board games, bean bag chairs, a refrigerator, computers--and the only people allowed in the camp are sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. No little kids allowed.
The Lighthouse and a growing number of similar programs provide a new service: summer camps aimed directly at young adolescents. Advertising solely by word of mouth, the Lighthouse has drawn 20 children to its $60-a-week program, which offers activities such as swimming, bowling and downtown field trips laced liberally with time for hanging out.
Veda L. Peters said she developed the idea for Lighthouse while looking for programs for her own daughter, who is in middle school.
"It's just an age group where they can make either very good choices or very bad choices. I wanted to help them make good choices," Peters said.
Once children hit their early teenage years, few programs are available for them. They could continue going away to camp and mingling with the 6- and 7-year-olds, something many teenagers are loath to do. Or, they could skip camp entirely and lounge around on the couch all day, watching television.
"Usually, it was only [sleep-away] camps that were available, and a growing number began to get bored with that," said Evie Hirsch, owner of Student Summers, a camp referral agency. "But now, there are all these other programs. That has really filled a void."
The Lighthouse, associated with Christ Our Lord Church, an interdenominational church in Woodbridge, is just one. In Loudoun County, tony Lansdowne Resort opened Camp Lansdowne this summer for children ages 6 through 14. It's an expansion of the long-running program "Resort Rascals," which cuts off at age 12.
"This past year I realized I was getting a little bit older kids who didn't have anything to do," said Michelle Vanhuss, activities coordinator for the Leesburg resort.
Some activities in Camp Lansdowne are held jointly, but in many cases, the preteens and young teenagers head off by themselves for more independent fun.
"We set up an agenda, and half the time it gets thrown out the door," Vanhuss said. "We base it on what the group wants to do."
For example, one recent day was to be dedicated to drama and acting classes. That was put aside because all the participants in that particular session were boys, who said they weren't interested.
"So we asked them what do they want to do. And they said, 'kickball,' " Vanhuss said.
The Lansdowne program has drawn about 67 children to the resort this summer for the one-week sessions, priced at $300. The first session brought out children of members, but later groups have had more children who had never been to the resort before. "It's a whole new experience for them," Vanhuss said.
In Montgomery County, new activities for teenagers have brought in about 600 more children to the county-run summer programs, which now serve more than 2,000 children, said Liz McLeod, team leader of the teen adventure and therapeutic recreation team for the county. A "high adventure" program steers teenagers to programs such as rock climbing and kayaking, and a summer center for teenagers at four locations throughout the county has been popular, she said.
McLeod attributes the interest in summer programs to the realization that young teenagers can fall into problems easily without some supervision, though they don't need the attention given to younger children.
"I think there has been a lot of publicity that this age group is very vulnerable, to sexual experimentation and things like that," McLeod said. "All of that says, don't leave these kids alone."
John Kuzins, the gregarious co-leader of the Lighthouse and pastor of youth ministries at Christ Our Lord Church, says many young teenagers don't want that much solo time.
"I don't know a middle-schooler that likes being alone," Kuzins said. "If they were left home alone, they would be out finding friends."
Bronwyn Ziegler, whose 13-year-old son, Richard, attends the Lighthouse, looked for a program even though she does not work outside the home.
"We could all do things together, but it's hard to find something that he wants to do with your 9-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister," Ziegler said. The differences between her children "are vast when it's that age."
Richard, an eighth-grader at Woodbridge Middle School, said he likes the field trips and movie excursions far more than staying home.
"At home, there's nothing to do because you've done it all," he said.
Jonathon Hawkins, of Woodbridge, a 12-year-old also entering eighth grade at Woodbridge Middle in the fall, bridled during his last year of after-school care, where he was in a class with his younger sister.
"He hated it," said his mother, Tricia Hawkins. "He said, 'I don't belong in a program with my sister, she's five years younger than me.' "
Jonathon now rides his inline skates to and from the program, where he can relax with his peers. One afternoon found him crushing buildings and attacking robots on the Super Nintendo game "Monsters."
"It's fun. I got to make a lot of friends there," Jonathon said. As for being with children his own age, he said, "We all pretty much know the same material. We can talk about things using big words."
CAPTION: Matt Benton, 13, left, plays a computer game with John Kuzins, a youth ministries pastor, while Laura Fleig, 12, and Maya Dangerfield, 11, chat at the Lighthouse, which offers programs--and a place to hang out--for young teenagers.
CAPTION: Curtis Hazen, 15, strums the guitar on the porch of the Lighthouse for friends to listen. Often the day's activities are dictated by the campers' desires.