The group of 3- and 4-year-olds solemnly rolled their sleeves up to their armpits, taking seriously their teacher's warning that the fabric paint would not wash out of their clothes if they were careless.
The children were using sponges dipped in the paint to print designs on a tablecloth, getting the room ready for an open house scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow to launch the new Head Start center at Meade Village.
It is the sixth such center in Anne Arundel County.
Seventeen children attend the Meade Village program, which is designed to get preschoolers from low-income families ready to enter school.
The federal Head Start program began in 1965 with the goal of helping poor children in the areas of education, nutrition, health care and social services.
Yesterday, while printing their tablecloth, made from a sheet donated by teacher Christel Langhorne, the young artists also learned the names of colors and geometric shapes. That's the sort of information they will need to have mastered for elementary school.
These students attend the Head Start center for 3 1/2 hours each morning from September through June.
Their program emphasizes nutrition and health skills. Each day, they eat a balanced breakfast, lunch and snack. Time is set aside for health-related skills, such as brushing their teeth and washing their hands. When needed, their families are referred for health and dental care.
"We look at the child holistically," Renee Woodward Foote, program director, said yesterday.
Through their play, the children make friends and develop leadership abilities and self-confidence. This feeds their curiosity, which further involves them in educational activities.
A key to Head Start's success, Ms. Foote said, lies in getting parents involved.
The adults are asked to help with homework and field trips. They also serve on the committee that sets program policy.
Mothers and fathers can be shy when their children first enter the program as 3-year-olds, Ms. Foote said, but "we keep pumping them with the idea that, 'You are somebody. You do have gifts and skills.' "
Some parents have even helped lobby the legislature on behalf of Head Start and the Maryland Food Committee.
"They come back feeling really good," Ms. Foote said.
The Anne Arundel County Economic Opportunity Committee Inc., a private nonprofit agency, administers the Head Start program using local and federal money. This year the committee will spend $1.3 million for the county's six Head Start centers, said its chief executive officer, Edith Knight.
Meade Village had a Head Start program several years ago, but it fell victim to budget cutbacks, Mrs. Knight said.