The first- and second-graders at St. Margaret School in Bel Air were clearly enjoying their break from lessons.
The children giggled and piped in with a boisterous "noooooo" when they were asked if they wanted to go back to their classrooms on such a beautiful Wednesday morning.
A few minutes later, though, the laughter turned to seriousness. Standing on the steps of the Harford County Courthouse, their voices rang out along Main Street as they sang, "I can vote."
It's a message they and 40,000 other Harford County schoolchildren will take to heart between now and Nov. 8.
The Harford students are the first in Maryland to participate in a national, nonprofit program called Kids Voting. Their introduction the electoral process is taking place in their schools. It will culminate in voting at the polls with their parents Nov. 8.
Maryland is the 12th state to implement the program. It began in Arizona in 1988 and has expanded to 19 states and the District of Columbia.
The purpose of Kids Voting is to instill lifelong voting habits in school-age children and to encourage parental voting.
"We as parents don't always provide a good example," said Scott Garceau of WMAR-TV (Channel 2), who emceed last week's kickoff program. Mr. Garceau also is the father of two Fallston Middle School students who are participating in Kids Voting.
The program also targets adult voter registration. Students will be descending on Harford's 10 McDonald's Friday and Saturday to encourage patrons to register to vote. The voter registration deadline for the November election is Oct. 11.
To launch Kids Voting in Harford, students from North Harford Middle School performed a skit and do-wopped in unison, "Get out and vote." Other students read their wishes into a mobile microphone at the outdoor ceremony that drew about 200 onlookers.
"It could lead to a lifetime of civic action," said Cathy Brill of the xTC state Department of Education's Maryland Student Service Alliance, who was in the crowd.
Kids Voting organizers expect the program to be in place throughout the state by the year 2000.
"It's so every child will have a chance to vote," said Bobbie Dillow, director of state and local affairs at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and a member of the Kids Voting Maryland board of directors.
BGE, along with several other companies and organizations, is spearheading the corporate charge for the voting program, providing money and manpower.
The first order of business at the kickoff was announcing winners of a county poster contest. Nicole Slowkowski of Fallston Middle and Meghan Dougherty of Emmorton Elementary School shared the limelight with their works.
"I had a tough time deciding what to do," Meghan said. "I decided to shorten it."
Her strategy worked with "Vote -- It Counts." Meghan's poster and other students' artworks will be exhibited at Harford Mall tomorrow through Thursday.
In a symbolic gesture, two flowering dogwoods were planted Wednesday at the courthouse. Students shared their wishes aloud and stood on tiptoe to hang pieces of paper, with the wishes written on them, on the trees.
Their hopes for the future were simple but poignant.
"I wish hate would stop," said Michael Ellis, a fifth-grader at Ring Factory Elementary School.
"I wish poor people would get food, shelter and a warm place to stay," said Diana Nguyen, a fourth-grader at Ring Factory.
Mr. Garceau and the children also read wishes from children nationwide.
"I wish for violence to stop in America," a Florida student pleaded.
"I wish for good people in Congress," an Arizona student wrote.
The audience applauded in agreement.
The scene was repeated in the other Kids Voting states that day, as trees were planted and wishes shared.
Saplings also were planted at each of Harford County's 49 public schools and eight nonpublic schools.
"This is a celebration of democracy," said Nancy Jo Steetle, executive director of Kids Voting in Maryland. "Voting is one way to make wishes for the country come true."