I go back a long way with the award-winning Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. My first experiences at Bernheim were grade school bus trips to the nature center in the early 1960s. I saw stuffed, dead animals and slithering live snakes in terrariums. I was hooked.

I have visited Bernheim many times over the last 60 years. For the past 11 years I’ve enjoyed visiting with our 12-year old granddaughter. Story May Lowe is a free-play girl at heart.

Granddad and Story at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. March 26, 2010.

April 11, 2019

Twenty years after my first visit, during the summer of 1978, I had the pleasure of being a summer weed boy at Bernheim before I set off for a year of work and study at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Weeding the woody ornamental collection at Bernheim, under the watchful eye of the great horticulturist Buddy Hubbuch, rivaled the honor of renovating the rose garden behind Kew’s historic Palm house.

Many of you have heard of the historic Kew Gardens in England but Bernheim, in Kentucky, might not be on your radar screen.

It should be.

Bernheim Arboretum and Forest—16,137 acres of it—is located a stone’s throw, south of Louisville.

You need to visit.

Bernheim’s national reputation was bumped up a few notches last week with the acceptance of the Award for Program Excellence at the American Public Gardens Associations (APGA) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The 1,100 attendees caught wind of what the Forest and Arboretum is up to.

The award honors the Children at Play Network, a Bernheim initative to foster free play. A few weeks ago I met with Melissa Rue, CAPN Coordinator, and Claude Stephens, Facilitator of Outreach and Regenerative Design and CAPN Director. I wanted to get an idea of what’s going on with kids and free play.

We know too well that never-ending screen time is mind numbing; the constant management of activities represses imagination. Children need free-play moments to explore unintentionally in parks, gardens, wild places, or even the end of the street.

This is a huge team effort, Claude explained. “It’s bigger than Melissa or me because the network is made up of everyone who wants to help us reimagine the landscapes of play for children and work to foster more children engaged in free play in the outdoors.”

Claude went on: “We see [it] as a strategy to nurture the next generation of children that will value the natural world. It is through play that children build their first passions. Those passions will be influenced by how and where children play.”

Connecting children to nature through free play is consistent with founder Issac W. Bernheim’s Institutional Big Ideas. The Children at Play Network is focused on outreach and programming beyond Bernheim’s borders, as well.

I asked Melissa how Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest organizes the Children at Play program:

“We train educators, parents and community advocates who facilitate connecting children to nature. Workshop topics include the importance of free play, the benefits of healthy risk taking for children’s healthy development and how loose parts – things that children play with rather than play on, such as sticks, mulch, ropes and tarps – encourage creativity, problem solving and cooperation…Our wildest hopes for the Children at Play Network are rooted in improved health for children— improved physical, emotional, social and cognitive intelligences.”

Claude expanded on this:

“Our human-ness is more than three million years old. We evolved as social outdoor beings. It has only been in the recent past that we have moved away from that. But while we have moved away from hunting and gathering, our brains may not have moved as quickly.

“You can tell a great deal about what a community values by looking at the play environments they provide for their children. Healthy communities value outdoor play for children that allow them to freely explore their world to the safe limits of their curiosity. Children know how to play. That ability is innate. By reimagining the landscapes we provide for our children with a critical eye for exploration and creativity we are simultaneously reimagining the futures of our communities.”

Give thanks to educators parents, community advocates whenever you see mud-splattered kids wandering around outdoors with their sticks and hula-hoops.

Put Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest on your radar screen.