Under The Willows

The goal of the program is to shift the focus from disabilities and problems, to the joy of possibilities and development.

Under the Willows provides the artists, materials, and physical-emotional space for children to develop their creativity and cooperation skills. With access to nurturing relationships, opportunities to explore the natural world and artistic expression, the children can experience themselves as whole unique persons with talents and abilities to offer not only in the Garden, but in their lives outside it!

Quick Facts

  • Serves 25 children through a summer day program.
  • For children associated with any of the three partner organizations: Lynwood Charlton Centre, Hamilton Interval House and Catholic Children’s Aid Society.
  • Run out of the Upper Paradise site.
  • Referrals are required from one of the partner organizations.

About the Program

A Brief History of Under the Willows… Where Children Grow

After having the good fortune in 1994 to participate at the Spiral Garden in Toronto, Dr. Ruth Pickering, a Child Psychiatrist and Narrative Therapist, was inspired to develop an arts-garden-play program in Hamilton.

The generous offer of the Board of Directors for Lynwood Charlton Centre to host the garden “under the willows” on the new site (open May 2002) provided the ideal setting and ready access for some of the children who would benefit from this unique outdoor developmental program.

Under the Willows is guided by Dr. Ruth Pickering, a retired Child Psychiatrist and community leader in Hamilton who has dedicated her life to children. With Ruth’s guidance, Under the Willows evolved into a collaborative program among three original community partner organizations: Lynwood Charlton Centre (with which Dr. Pickering is affiliated), Interval House of Hamilton-Wentworth (a Hamilton-based shelter for abused women and children), and Niwasa Headstart Preschool (a preschool program which serves and is operated by members of the Native community). The partnership currently (2015) includes Lynwood Charlton Centre, Interval House and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton.

With over three decades professional work experience with children experiencing serious adversity, including poverty, abuse, trauma, neglect, marginalization and deprivation, Dr. Pickering observed in 1994: “Whatever we do in these child service systems — reducing risk, improving behavior, keeping the children safe, modifying their behavior, medicating their symptoms — none of it is intentionally about bringing joy, stimulating creativity and imagination or having fun with them.” Sadly, children’s services (which are, by design, focussed on problems and ‘disabilities’) offer few opportunities for children to experience themselves as persons with abilities, of having personal agency, and of being seen to be persons of value.

Thus, Dr Pickering set out to develop the arts-garden-play summer program, Under the Willows.  There through the metaphor of the garden, challenged and challenging children could celebrate their interdependence within the natural world as the context for healing.

In re-focusing from disabilities and problems, to possibilities and development, the artists, the materials, and the physical-emotional context of ability, creativity, cooperation and mutual support provides an environment in which children extend themselves, develop and create. With access to nurturing relationships, opportunities to explore the world of nature and artistic expression, while working cooperatively with other children and adults, the children experience themselves as whole unique persons with talents and offerings not only in the Garden, but also in their lives outside!

Now entering our fourteenth year, we invite you to join us in assisting this unique developmental program to continue growing …. for our children and our community.

Please have a look at the rest of the FAQ’s for a deeper understanding of the program, its philosophy and values, a typical day, staff, how you can become involved and a few links that may be of interest.

One of the many unique features of Under the Willows (Willows), is the original and continuing partnership arrangement for the founding, development and growth of the program.

Most children’s services are ‘siloed’, yet all children are highly complex organisms with multiple, complex needs. Knowing that all children need ongoing opportunities to recognize and develop their talents, creativity and interests while having fun, the three original partners came together to offer a multi-facetted, innovative arts-garden-play summer program for children who have suffered adversity in their lives. This would include but not be limited to prejudice and discrimination, poverty, child abuse, mental health issues and witnessing domestic violence.

Based on their shared vision and knowledge that healthy child development and healthy environments are interrelated, each organization is committed to the development of healthy communities through healing traumatized and disadvantaged children and youth, represented here in their partnership in the Willows program. (Also see FAQ: The Partners)

Three child-serving Hamilton organizations have formed a collaborative partnership to support and operate Under the Willows. The Executive Director of each (or a designate) sits on the Under the Willows Advisory Committee where they set the goals and direction and facilitate coordination among the agencies to provide the summer program. Each agency refers one third of the children registered each year in the summer program and offers in-kind support.


The current partner organizations:

Formerly Lynwood Child and Family Centre, Lynwood Charlton Centre (LCC)  is the lead partner agency for Under the Willows. LCC provides the beautiful physical site under 10 weeping willow trees for the Willows summer program, the ‘Big Dig’ and the ‘Great Fall Clean-Up’, some organizational and administrative support, as well as access to office space for Willows staff. The Board of Directors of Lynwood Charlton Centre (LCC) provides oversight for the program.

Hamilton Interval House, a shelter that provides a safe, supportive place for women and their children fleeing violence and abuse in their homes, brings to the Advisory Committee the experience and the knowledge that traumatized children need responsive, supportive, non-judgemental and non-threatening environments, like Willows. There, through play and creativity, they are free to test boundaries, express themselves and re-establish a positive self-identity.

The Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton provides a wide range of child protection services. Recognizing that in addition to the services they provide to children and families, the benefits of participation in Under the Willows for some of their most challenged children successfully extends their mission to protect and advocate for the well-being of children within the City of Hamilton.

Previous Founding Partner:

Niwasa Headstart Preschool, one of the three founding partners, is an established Aboriginal Headstart program within the Native community. Niwasa brought to Willows unique programming opportunities and richness of culture, history and traditions that helped shape and inform the early foundations of the Willows program. During the first two formative years the Niwasa Program also offered children and families from their community with the unique opportunity to be participants, staff or volunteers at Under the Willows.

The Founding Executive Director (Volunteer), Dr.Ruth Pickering, is responsible for year-round oversight  and development of the Under the Willows program, including but not limited to, financial support for the program, there being no annualized funding for this unique program. Ruth works closely with Jody Boston, the Program Director (since 2014) who is responsible for the recruitment and training of the artists and volunteers and the implementation of the ‘Willows’ summer program, the ‘Big Dig’ and the ‘Great Fall Clean-Up’. Throughout the year, Ruth and Jody work together on planning each year’s program as well as a variety of outreach proposals to expand the benefits of the developmental programming of Under the Willows to other challenged children and youth in the Hamilton community.

Each summer a number of local working artists (one of whom is garden/food oriented) are recruited and hired to work with the children. Artists are selected based not only on their artistic medium, but also on their interest in facilitation of collaboration (among artists and children), engaged creativity, (rather than ‘teaching’) and commitment to the ‘Willows’ developmental philosophy and the relationship-based arts-garden-play values of Under the WIllows. Two Child and Youth Workers are also hired each summer to bring their professional experience in working with children who struggle. When the budget will allow, we also hire one or two Guest Artists and Guest ‘Visitors’ who appear for a few day sessions to add some mystery and unique opportunities each year.

During four Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays in July, twenty-five children cross the ‘Willows’ bridge and enter the unique world of Under the Willows. Met by Willows artists and volunteers, they are welcomed to a variety of pre-program activities (cutting up fruit for snacks, drawing, ‘hanging out’), prior to gathering in Music Circle. Here we all sing and drum and learn which activities will be offered each day.

Some of the activities include: BigArt, smallart, ClayWorld (and Clay Works), Drama Dress-up, Drumma Dress-up, Oceans of Potions, face-painting, Chikin Kitchin (where snacks are prepared and lunch made by the children and an artist-volunteer team), gardening projects, chats with Gramma and on special days, offerings from our occasional Guest artists. After lunch we play WillowBall or make canals, castles and rivers in Sand-aria, draw, make bracelets or ‘hang out’ until it is time for Music Circle and activities in the afternoon.

During the four weeks of program, we also perform a unique-to-Willows ‘tea ceremony’, have spontaneous processions and drumming, visit the “in-the-way cafe” to perform or applaud, and welcome occasional visitors who bring us news from ‘other worlds’ (Harold the Herald, Nizami, Josie the Carpenter, Veronique from Paris (?), Dave and once during a VERY hot summer, a fire dragon!)

Throughout the four weeks in July we also begin preparing for our Final Feast Day when we celebrate the summer’s activities with a delicious feast, more processions and many performances.

There are only two rules at Willows:

  1. Safety is the only ‘real rule’ . Children are informed regularly that “We don’t want anyone to be hurt here.” (See FAQ on Safety for further elaboration)
  2. Children may choose any activity they like. They may change activities whenever they choose (which the children consider to be ‘awesome’) or they may choose not to be in an activity.

In 2009 an Assessment was performed by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton who concluded that:

  • The program helped to improve the general disposition of participants. Specifically, the children were seen to be happier and more outgoing.
  • Some of the participants developed the ability to look at things differently, and consider others points of view.
  • Some of the participants developed an interest and attraction toward gardening and nature.
  • The program had the effect of reducing a number of antisocial behaviours.
    Specifically: There was a reduction in the negative behaviours of bullying and possessiveness among participants over the course of the program.

The following conclusions were generated through a synthesis of findings that emerged through the research process:

  1. Under the Willows achieved its goals of seeing all participants through to the completion of the program and to “do no harm”.
  2. Under the Willows has facilitated some of the same positive outcomes that have been observed through similar programs including the Spiral Garden and Cosmic Bird Feeder in Toronto and the Butterfly Garden in Sri Lanka.
    Specifically: The program increased communication and positive interactions with family and friends. Participants became more polite and better listeners.

Most importantly, they conclude:

  • The program addresses a gap in the local child mental health system. Children with this level of behavioural issues are generally not accepted into mainstream summer outdoor recreation programs, and no comparable alternatives exist within the local child mental health system.
  • While the program addresses a gap it does not meet a need. With the capacity to accept a maximum of 25 children each season, hundreds if not thousands of children facing similar life circumstances will not benefit from the Willows experience.

Executive Summary: Assessment of the Under the Willows Program

Under the Willows is a unique arts-garden-play summer program inspired by the Spiral Garden and Cosmic Bird Feeder programs in Toronto, and is one of only three such programs in Canada. The Artistic Founding Director of the Toronto programs, Paul Hogan, has founded several other initiatives in Asia, including The Butterfly Garden in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, which was founded and served children fro both ‘sides of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

All of these programs are unique in their philosophy and practice, and all serve challenged youngsters, whether children living in war zones (those in Asia) or those challenged with physical-neurological disabilities (Spiral Garden and Cosmic Bird Feeder programs in Toronto).

The program, at this time, has the capacity to serve only 25 children each summer, the partner agencies being the only referral sources.

Thus, only children from families associated with Lynwood Charlton Centre, Hamilton Interval House and Catholic Children’s Aid Society, have access to the summer program.

  1. Speak with your worker to learn if it would be a possibility for your child to be accepted into the program.
  2. If it is, then a preliminary intake form will be required for presentation to the Advisory Committee to make a final decision for admission. (There will be a waiting list if there are more referrals than openings.)

It has been very helpful to have volunteers from the community assist us in offering this high quality program to children who deserve, but often don’t receive, admission to enriching experiences like Under the Willows. Over the years we have had High School students, student Child and Youth Workers, interested adults and some challenged youth who have offered their time as volunteers.

There are many benefits to the program over and above the commitment of time and energy from the volunteers; namely, the presence of teens as role models and the unique experience for the volunteers of participating in this innovative program (which often influences the choices that these young people make about careers, jobs, further schooling, etc) as well as ‘spreading the word’ about Willows in the community.

The presence and experience of the adult volunteers has also been invaluable. (Eg, we have had an organic farmer present on site once a week for the last several years to assist with our vegetable and herb gardens and ‘berry patch’). During other times in the year we have attracted some ‘working bees’ of McMaster students, individuals and members of Service Clubs who assist us in preparing the gardens for the summer program, setting up and taking down the site each year, preparing the gardens for winter and (some years ago) building our lovely gazebo (Tea-House).

We have had a few individuals who have offered their time to help with the fund-raising challenges we face each year.

Volunteers are always welcome for the summer program, for 4 weeks in July on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8am to 4 pm, plus training before and during the program.

If anyone would like to consider volunteering, please contact Ruth.

Safety is the most important ‘rule’ and practice at Under the Willows.
Since most of the children have experienced and witnessed a variety of unsafe actions in their lives, the core program value is that the site, the materials and the practises among staff, volunteers and children are organized to create conditions for emotional and physical safety.

We start with the beautiful site under the willows, among garden beds, crossing over the bridge each day, and with respect and listening to the children. On the first day, we inform them that they may choose their activities, they may change their minds and go to another activity, they may offer their opinions (about the activities and the songs and the food), and, most importantly that “We don’t want anyone to be hurt here”.

We let them know that if ‘Trouble” occurs and someone does get hurt, that no one will be punished and that we will all work together to make sure that “Trouble” doesn’t return.

In practice, we talk through each situation of conflict with those involved, blaming no one and developing alternative solutions. What we have found is that if each child involved in a conflictual situation is listened to respectfully, the conflict essentially dissolves. We do not label, nor do we ‘see’ either child as ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’, recognizing that it is not as simple as that. Each child is doing the best he/she can in the moment, each child is likely to react quickly to ‘perceived danger’ (because of previous adverse situations faced) and that a conversation often facilitates better understanding as well as options for solutions should future situations arise.

It is our sincere belief born out by thirteen year’s of experience, that by creating these particular conditions for emotional and physical safety, we optimize the possibilities for the children to engage, create, learn, develop, have fun, and most importantly, experience themselves as persons of value.

Under the Willows has no annualized funding, so every dollar must be raised during the year to support the Program Director, the artists, the healthy foods for snacks and lunches, the art and garden tools and materials, the newsletter, some transportation as well as tools and supplies for maintenance of the storage areas, the rain shelters, the tea-house, activity sites and picnic tables. We waive Registration fees, provide healthy snacks and lunches and provide some support for transportation so as to optimize access for the children.

We have always had a core of loyal supporters who give generously ‘from their hearts’ and their wallets. United Way provides us with a regulator donation each year for which we are very grateful (which has been diminishing in the last few years as their funds have been more difficult to raise).

We receive financial support from several Service Clubs and we can occasionally raise funds from local foundations for some of the specific expenses of the program. For the most part, we rely on the generosity of individuals in our community.

The dilemma for our program (and other small but mighty programs) is that there are virtually no foundation or granting agencies that provide funds for operations. Most of them give ‘new money’ for start-up of pilot projects, or special projects, eg outreach for an existing program. We would love to do some outreach as we are very confident that there are many more youngsters who could benefit from our experience and our way of working. To do outreach, in our case, requires that we successfully raise the funds for our operations prior to applying for outreach funds, which so far has not been possible.

Program Links

Program Location

  • Upper Paradise Site
  • 526 Upper Paradise,
    Hamilton, ON, L9C 5E3
  • 905-389-1361