The Bernheim Approach
Education, engagement and outreach are an integral part of all we do at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Our mission is connecting people with nature, and our founder established our organization in 1929 with the idea that it should be open and welcoming to all people. At Bernheim, we believe creating learning and engagement opportunities for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds is at the core of all we do. Our facilities offer accessible, engaging demonstrations of topics like water-wise gardening in our Living Building Challenge candidate Edible Garden. Our 40-year collection of environmental art through our Artist in Residence Program offers thought-provoking stories and creative approaches to nature and environmental protection. And, of course, our 16,000+ acres of forests, fields and water are the most spectacular natural classroom imaginable. We believe a connection with nature should start in early childhood, last a lifetime, and be passed on to the next generation, and this belief influences how we structure our programs. Our early childhood programs engage children and their parents in a fun, playful space to learn about nature. We have programs that cater towards all school ages and adults, including our robust Volunteer Naturalist program. And the topics we teach range from water ecology to plant ID to regenerative design to insects to natural history and beyond, so we’re able to meet a broad range of needs and interests. Because we have no required admission fee (we ask a $10 suggested donation at our gate) anyone can have an amazing learning experience at Bernheim for free even if they don’t participate in a program.
Photo: Bernheim offers a space for everyone to learn about nature. Photo courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
Taking Bernheim out to the community
We are aware that a number of barriers prevent community members from visiting Bernheim, so we devote significant resources to community-based education programs. This includes a partnership with the Urban Conservation Corps program of YouthBuild Louisville in which we host onsite work-study programs for youth ages 16-22. We also bring Bernheim experts in conservation, forestry, horticulture, interpretation and other topics to the group’s urban campus. Our Bernheim Ambassador program has grown out of that partnership, which gives a green careers opportunity to a promising young person every year, and also works to build diversity in horticulture, forestry and related professions. While we offer field trips and guided hikes to schools and other groups from all over our region we have also worked to establish a deeper connection with one local Title I elementary school with a predominately immigrant population and a high level of poverty. This program, Restoring Nature’s Classroom, includes several educator visits to the school and has demonstrated positive impact on students’ standardized test scores for science — but also visibly built a stronger affinity to nature for kids who have very limited access to it.
Photo: Children participate in Bernheim's Restoring Nature's Classroom program. Photo courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
Learning from the communities we serve
We consider ourselves to be lifelong learners as well, so we devote a significant amount of time to meeting with diverse community members to listen and learn what role we can play in facilitating education. For example, in creating our new Sensory Garden we are working closely with community groups who advocate for the blind and visually impaired and for people on the autism spectrum. We also believe that learning doesn’t just happen through educational programs — it happens in spontaneous free play in nature as well. In the creation of our new Playcosystem nature playground we carried out extensive play-based consultations with children across Louisville including Latinx immigrants and Black communities, and the site continues to be the focus of research and observation to create nature play opportunities for kids of all ages and backgrounds.
Map of Bernheim's new Sensory Garden, courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
Photo: Bernheim's Playcosystem nature playground, courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
Using nature as a tool of empowerment
One of our newest programs, the Louisville Rites of Passage, is a partnership with two Black-led Louisville organizations to create a space where Black youth ages 16-18 can connect with nature and Afrocentric tradition as part of transitioning into a healthy and connected adulthood. The program, like many at Bernheim, is free of charge to all participants and includes nature and cultural programming, lunch, and transportation. While our summer nature camp is priced similarly to similar camps in the area, but we do offer a full week of scholarships including transportation for children of Churchill Downs employees, who are all Latinx immigrants.
Offering a space for STEAM education for rural communities
Although our small staff keeps a limit on our capacity for offering programming, we also provide a free space for many local school groups to utilize our spaces. This includes the high schools of two neighboring counties, for whom we provide free space and some limited instruction for on-site STEAM laboratories. This offers students from rural and Title I schools exposure to sustainable agriculture, regenerative design and other ideas and career avenues not typically available to them. We also collaborate with several local universities for conservation research projects and also with a university course on environmental writing. Although our field trips and homeschool hikes for school-age groups are not free, we offer them at a minimal cost and offer scholarships when there is clear need.
Photo courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.