At a Petaluma park, summer camp teaches social, emotional skills

A bullfrog bellowed loudly as Annabelle Farkas waded, looking for fish near the edge of the pond. Helen Putnam Regional Park and its rolling golden hills 2 miles southwest of downtown Petaluma have become a playground for 8-year-old Farkas since she enrolled in the Fiddleheads summer day camp.

Farkas and fellow campers get to learn about bluegill nests, bullfrog calls and wild berries, among other things, while exploring the park’s pond, trails and plant life. But Fiddleheads is more than just a nature camp.

Run by licensed therapists and those in training, it focuses on building children’s social and emotional skills through imaginative play, storytelling and “mindfulness” activities. A form of meditation once on the cultural fringe, mindfulness now is being promoted in schools and camps across the country as a way to reduce student stress and improve their focus and mood control.

Many campers struggle with impulse control, sensory processing and other developmental and behavioral problems, said Doug Lerch, founder of Seeds of Awareness, which operates a total of seven Fiddleheads summer camps in the Bay Area. While some kids have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism, he said others simply are introverted and struggle to make friends.

At the start of camp Wednesday, five kids wiggled around as they geared up to play a mirroring game. They took turns calling out a name and running around trees and a playground as the others copied. They then sat and quieted down when counselor Sarah Gerber-Kai rang a bell, asking the kids to raise their hands when they no longer could hear the ringing.

“Paying attention is a skill you have to learn,” Lerch said. “It can’t just be demanded, especially with kids with unique neuro makeups.”

After circle time, the kids raced over to a large tree while singing “the ants go marching one by one.” Some immediately jumped onto the tree, while others reluctantly scooted up the limbs. Kids learn to respect others’ space and be mindful of their feelings while sharing tree climbs, Lerch said.

“There’s a lot of relationship building,” he said.

The camps are two weeks long and held three times during the summer months. A similar program is offered once a week after school, said counselor Kathleen Fox.

“We make space for behaviors that wouldn’t be welcomed in other spaces,” she said, noting that some kids may feel over-stimulated and act out. Counselors work with the children one-on-one, she said, to help them process their emotions without being punished.

“We’re giving them the opportunity to be who they are,” Fox said, adding that many of the campers face bullying at school. The children are divided into two groups: one for ages 5 to 8 and the other for kids 8 to 12. Far from a television and computer screen, the park provides a soothing and nurturing learning environment, counselors say.

Farkas, of Petaluma, ran over to the pond, excited to point out a bluegill nest near the edge of the pond. She then slipped into her pink flip-flops, grabbed a net and attempted to catch some fish.

“We catch with the net and release,” she said.

Temple Sevenau, 9, of Sonoma, said she caught and released about 40 fish in a week.

“I like fishing. It’s just fun being with people and being at this beautiful spot,” she said, before racing back to the pond after a snack break.

Farkas’ mother, Korren, said it’s particularly hard for girls her daughter’s age to make friends as they see more cliques form at school. The camp teaches her daughter to deal with those challenges, she said.

“Friendships can be difficult,” she said. “This is a safe place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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