IT'S almost six o'clock on a Thursday evening at a local high school track. Student volunteers in tie-dyed T-shirts and jean shorts carry track equipment out to the field. A few early arrivals talk quietly at the information table. The atmosphere is calm and quiet.
Fifteen minutes later, car doors are slamming in the parking lot. Parents and their kids squirm out of their cars and break toward the track. The silence barrier is broken, and 400 children, mixed with Hula-Hoops, Styrofoam hurdles, eggs, balloons, and oranges create pandemonium.
It's "like setting up the Fourth of July and putting on a parade every night," says John Hrones, summer-program director of the Needham Track Club in this suburb west of Boston.
The club, open to children aged 5 to 14, meets two evenings a week in June and July. It started more than 10 years ago with a group of adults, and has grown into a summer program for children that includes 200 parent coaches and 700 children. (On a given night, an average of 400 children attend.) For their $32 membership fee, each child receives a T-shirt with his or her name on it, prize ribbons, and popsicles after every meet.
The purpose of the program is to introduce young children to track and field, "but in a low-key, fun-type atmosphere," says club president John Normant.
The program is primarily for town residents, but guests come from as far away as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Club also sponsors fund-raisers, two "away" meets for older children, a parent-child meet, and an all-star meet.
"There needs to be more youth clubs like this," says Steve Zaitones, managing director of the New England Association for U.S.A. Track and Field. "It's a very supportive atmosphere, with everybody taking part."
In fact, the popularity and success of the program may be its only drawback. As Zaitones has been told by other track coaches in the area, the size of Needham's program limits its ability to travel to other track meets.
"If you have 300 to 500 kids, how do you decide who goes?" Zaitones says. Hrones is considering capping the number of children who can participate.
A typical evening at the track club commences with a "super duper obstacle relay" for everyone. Participants grab a Hula-Hoop, slide it over their body, and run under a hurdle. After the big event, children break up by age group for more typical events: dashes, runs, hurdles, jumps, and various throwing events. But there is also a tug-of-war and races in which contestants must grip an orange or an egg with their chins.
"It's something they are going to have fun with no matter how well they do," Hrones says, "because they get ribbons and they get to participate. Here, you don't have to achieve. If you achieve, that is fine, but we try to discourage it as being serious."
In order to prepare for the summer events, Hrones orders 34,000 ribbons (at 10 cents apiece) and 550 trophies every February. In June and July he has a standing order for 400 popsicles, twice a week. "People wait around for the popsicles," Hrones says. "That is a strong incentive."
Three families that attend the club on a regular basis say it accommodates their needs and those of their children.
Abbe and Steven Asen say they go to 90 percent of the meets with their three children: Mollie, 10; Emma, 7; and Josh, 2.
`MY kids love the action, and they like seeing what they are good at," Abbe says as she watches Emma prepare for the 100-meter dash.
"I like winning," Emma says later. She had crossed the finish line first.
"This is a very special event for all of us," Abbe continues. "We take them out for ice cream afterwards. And we all come home very tired." Josh is till too young to compete, but his parents plan to sign him up as soon as he's old enough.
On the other side of the track is Sheridan Carey, who ran alongside his five-year-old son in the 50-yard dash to give him moral support. Carey says the program is "outstanding."
"My son is a very slow runner, but he really enjoys this," he says. "It's incredible to have this for kids."
When asked what he likes most, Mark Carey, Sheridan's son, says "I like the tug of war because I get to beat a bunch of grown-ups," that is, older children in the program.
Judy McLaughlin says the program is "wonderful" because of the volunteers' support and the feeling that everybody is a winner.
"It's competitive, but in a relaxed manner," McLaughlin says. Over the course of the summer, she predicts, "Everyone will probably end up with first- and second-place ribbons."
McLaughlin's 10-year-old daughter, Kerry, who took second place in the hurdles and third place in the 100-meter dash, says, "I have a whole collection of ribbons." She likes "the way you get to do neat events."
Hrones says he has been pressured by some parents to increase the level of intensity, but hesitates to do so.
"Parents try to push their kids too young to try to do something," he says.
"We know from experience that if a child is below the age of six, that it is very difficult for them to compete with a group and keep up. Our activities are supposed to be fun."