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The Spiral Garden: An oasis in Leaside

Holland Bloorview’s Spiral Garden staff artists (l-r), Thiago, Lynn and Marek share the Music Circle with participants Kate and Zach.

Holland Bloorview’s Spiral Garden staff artists (l-r), Thiago, Lynn and Marek share the Music Circle with participants Kate and Zach. Photo by Robyn Cox.

There are many different kinds of summer camp, but a unique camp experience can be found right in North Leaside at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, the largest children’s rehabilitation hospital in Canada, and a global leader in applied research, teaching and family-centred care.

As part of their mission to create “a world of possibility” for disabled children, the facility runs the Spiral Garden Summer Day Program, a fully integrated offering open to both children with disabilities and those without. This innovative and inclusive community started in 1984, as their website states, “to create a community that values the whole person, promotes self and group expression and builds a hands-on relationship with nature and art.” Holland Bloorview research shows that integrated programs yield many benefits by providing a space for all children to participate, interact and grow.

The Spiral Garden is an outdoor art, garden and play program set in a lovely one and a half acre site at Holland Bloorview. The program, for children aged 6 to 18, is run by professional artists, support and medical staff. This year there are four two-week sessions and the new option of four one-week sessions offered from July 4 to August 25, with 60 children in each session and a 50-50 ratio of children with and without disabilities, some of whom are siblings.

While there are several structural markers to each day, with a morning group music and story circle, a conch sounding to signal lunch time, and a relaxation session at the end of the day, what sets this program apart is the absence of a set schedule for each child. Instead, kids are free to follow their own interests to various table-top activity areas such as woodworking, “clay world,” painting, puppets, mask-making, cooking and tending the organic garden. The tables are covered with canopies because the activities take place outside, rain or shine.

In each activity area, professional artists and musicians customize activities for the children while guiding them to create their own works of art. While these artists have other jobs during the year, most of them return to the Spiral Garden every summer. One is Ben Lee, a jazz musician, puppeteer, artist and performer who lives in New Orleans and plans to build floats with the children this summer. These professionals are assisted by volunteers, many of them high school students from the community.

The circular tables were chosen because they “provide opportunities for social engagement and conversation among children with similar passions who enjoy getting to know each other,” said Shannon Crossman, Spiral Garden’s creative coordinator. She added that this setup allows the kids “to be exposed to each other and gives a sense of belonging, a feeling of being part of a bigger picture where everyone matters.”

One of the most popular activities is woodworking. There is often a waiting list of children anxious to make animals, boats, treasure boxes and doll and dog furniture.

But the emphasis remains on the effort and the process rather than the final product. Caring adults encourage the children to make their own decisions, explore and push their limits. In this nurturing atmosphere, the children can “flourish, be present and feel calm,” said Ms. Crossman.

The Spiral Garden Summer Program is a “hidden gem,” a magical place which delights both the children and their parents. Comments in the Music & Arts Program Guide (see www.hollandbloorview.ca) focus on the quality of the experience, community feeling and children’s positive responses. The final date for registration for this summer’s program is June 2, but many sessions will fill up before then.