Where can Ashland kindergarteners through fifth-graders spend their weekdays now until the school bell rings again in January?

Two words — "school's out" — cause kids to cheer and some parents to panic, especially in jam-packed December. Where can Ashland kindergarteners through fifth-graders spend their weekdays now until the school bell rings again in January?

Moms and dads may be working. Family members and other sitters may be tied up. Most after-school programs have shut down for the holidays.

Except the YMCA.

This is one of the busiest times of the year at the Ashland YMCA, with preschoolers continuing their yearlong program and elementary students attending the Y Holiday Camp, 10 days of playing Sprout Ball, crafting holiday cards and caroling to senior citizens.

"I don't know what I would do without the Y," says Michele Becraft, who brought daughter Maya, 8, and son Emmanuel, 5, to the first day of camp on Monday before heading off to work at the City of Ashland office.

Becraft says the cost to attend the camp — $23 a day for YMCA members; $28 for nonmembers — is less than hiring a babysitter and her children have more fun than staying home.

Inside the Kids Club room, two dozen five- through 10-year-olds are gathered in a circle and politely listening to teacher Joyce Dement, who is standing underneath an oak tree made of brown paper.

"Miss Joyce," as the children call her, explains the rules: Walking feet only. No throwing. Keep hands to yourself.

"Later, we will build a sugar-free gingerbread house because we are healthy eaters and we don't like sugar," says Miss Joyce. A few of the children respectfully disagreed.

Most of the children have met before, either in school or at previous YMCA events. Still, Miss Joyce asks the children to introduce themselves: Arthur, Joah, Lily"… When it's his turn, Andrew Stoyaroff, 9, says, "You can call me 'Dude.' " The children giggle again when Kaeden Calkins, 6, offers his name as "Pizza." With that, Miss Joyce asks: "Are we caring people?" The children answer yes. "Will we tell the truth?" Yes. "Will we be responsible for ourselves and the things around us?" Yes.

Then she sets them free to explore the huge room, which has areas for building structures, playing board games and creating crafts projects.

Over the days, in other spaces inside the YMCA building, there will be pajama relay races, cooking classes and swimming. There will also be field trips to bowling lanes, ScienceWorks and Skylark Assisted Living center to serenade senior citizens.

Anne Robison, who owns the downtown Crown Jewels shop, enrolled daughter Adelle, 9, and son Rowan, 6, for five days of the two-week camp. She likes that she can pick the days her children are here based on her schedule and the planned activities.

Joe Caron, who works at home as a web developer, says his son Ben, 6, has been coming to the Y since he was two.

"He could have stayed home with me, but I would not get a lot of work done," says Caron, "and he wouldn't have the same opportunities of education wrapped in with sports, fitness and social activities. The Y is a kids' village."

After an hour of free time in the Kids Club, Miss Joyce flicks the overhead lights off and the children hear her call out: "One, two, three, frozen." Stopping in place, some with hands still up in the air about to drop marbles down a newly erected wooden slide, the children are told by Miss Joyce that it is time to go to the gym "and blow off some energy."

Joyce Dement has been teaching at the YMCA for six years. Long ago, she was a policewoman in the Air Force. She says she learned there how to give clear instructions, show leadership and get people organized.

"Parents sometimes walk in here and they think it's chaos," says Dement. "But it's controlled chaos. Everyone is doing something."

At first, Jayleen Magill worried that the YMCA would be too hectic for her daughter Bryson, 5.

"I was looking for a smaller camp, a space that was more contained, more her speed," says Magill. "But there is no other place than the Y. It's a big struggle to find a place where she feels safe and happy."

After spending a few minutes in the Kids Club room together, Bryson found a friend and waved goodbye to her mother.

"It's a real relief," says Magill, before leaving for work at the Mederi Foundation in Ashland.

The children wiggle into a line to go to the gym and Miss Joyce offers even more rules: "When we go through the Y, we are respectful to the little babies and people working out and the grandparents," she says.

The holiday campers walk into the hall, past the preschool room where little ones are doing handstands. They enter the gym, where young gymnasts are practicing on balance beams. They follow the ropes, turn a corner and stop at the edge of the basketball courts. There, green, purple and orange balls are lined for them.

They wait patiently as Miss Joyce explains the rules of Sprout Ball, that if a ball touches you, you have to squat down until you can sprout up again. She then blows a whistle and the kids charge into the second hour of the first day of Y Holiday Camp.

Reporter Janet Eastman can be reached at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com