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Camps keep kids' hands and minds occupied

Children learn about marine life and get to express themselves artistically at spring break camps.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 29, 2002

The stingray is hiding, buried somewhere in sand.

According to the sign, this is typical behavior. But on this spring break afternoon at the Florida Aquarium no one buys this explanation.

The stingray is hiding from Chase.

The 6-year-old is bouncing up and down, chanting "No BoneZone! No BoneZone! No BoneZone!" He's trying to stir up support from fellow campers to revisit his favorite area.

Chase Wehrle, AquaVet day camper, is not just an attention-crazed dynamo.

He's an example of why spring break day camps are sprouting all over.

Spring break isn't necessarily fun for all. While kids get a break from school, working parents face a weeklong babysitting challenge.

Enter day camps, where kids could learn to be lifeguards, take tennis lessons, follow zoo animals or explore artistic endeavors.

At the AquaVet camp, elementary-age children learn what aquarium staff do to keep the captive creatures happy and healthy.

At the Taylor Craft Studio's day camp near Robles Park, preteens and adolescents learn crafts and arts, including dance and music.

About two dozen students attend each of the camps.

Chase hangs out at the aquarium with Dylan Lester, 10, of Brandon. Dylan is thinking of becoming a marine biologist.

"I just love animals," Dylan says. "Whenever we go fishing, I feel bad for the bass."

"Same thing for me," Chase chimes in. "Except for feeling bad about the fish. I eat the fish!"

Camp includes a field trip to Picnic Island, at the tip of the Port Tampa peninsula, to check out marine life in the bay.

If budding veterinarians gravitate to the aquarium, budding artists find Taylor Craft Studio.

Artist and guest instructor Tim Gibbons leads the campers through a crafts project: They hammer nails in the shape of their names into a plank of wood.

Stephanie Bonfonte hammers on a plank like it owes her money.

She could have spent her spring break on a cruise. Hawaii and the Bahamas were options. She told her family she'd rather do it some other time. She preferred to be at crafts camp.

"Here you get to dance and play, and you can't do that on a cruise," she says.

Honeymooners and gaming enthusiasts might differ, but Stephanie is 11.

Hillary Vagg, 12, who lives in the West Shore area, is in her fifth and final year at the arts and crafts camp. Next year, she plans to follow in the footsteps of older brother Alex, a camp leader.

"He's good for the little guys to look up to," Hillary says of her brother, "and the little girls to have a crush on."

Actually, most everybody at the camp looks up to Alex, including the instructors. A few weeks shy of his 15th birthday, Alex already is more than 5-foot-10.

"I told my father my two goals in life are to be smarter than him, which I already am," Alex says, "and to be taller than he is."

This is Alex's second year assisting at the camp, acting as an informal liaison between the kids and the adults running the show. He enjoys learning about the arts and working with youngsters.

Camper Gina Ward seems to like everything all the time.

"I'm waiting to do more art cause I really want to do it," the eager 8-year-old says with a smile.

"I can't hold it in!"

Sitting next to Gina is Christian Hanby, 8, whose favorite part of the camp, he says, is lunch.

He likes the "arts stuff" too, apparently, and the dancing is okay. Clogging is fun, but he prefers breakdancing.

"What's breakdancing?" Gina asks.

Another smile.

"You put your hand on the ground and you spin around," Christian explains.

Gina prefers Irish dancing, she says, smiling. She's a second-grader at Palma Ceia's Mitchell Elementary.

"My teacher calls me Smiley," she says, smiling. "I don't know why!"

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