The little boy runs out of the school building and into the forest, puffer coat zipped up nearly to his ears, eyes squinting against the bright winter sunshine. He seems to be searching for something, and in a few moments he spots it. Stooping down, he motions to the boys on either side of him.
"Look, look!" he whispers, pointing to a paw print in the snow.
The other boys crowd around and speculate what kind of animal made the print. A squirrel? A coyote? A cougar? One boy jabs it with a stick. Another grabs a bit of snow and pops it into his mouth. Then a bald eagle appears in the sky and the boys lose interest in the paw print. All except the boy in the puffer coat. He remains squatting until a teacher gently prompts him to stay with his classmates.
Students poking around the outdoors would go unnoticed at most schools. But this is Karner Blue Education Center, a "Setting 4" elementary and middle school—the federal government's designation for the most restrictive, non-residential, public education environment. Opened in 2014 in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Blaine, the K-8 school is the state's first and only nature-based public school for children who have autism, emotional and behavioral disorders, and cognitive disabilities. It's a haven for students whose needs cannot be met in mainstream classrooms.
The boys' walk through the forest isn't recess—it's science class, behavioral therapy, life skills education, and safety training all rolled into one. Karner Blue is designed to seamlessly fuse nature and education. The school's 5-acre forest, filled with aspen, oak, and a smattering of pine, is an outdoor classroom. The school building itself mirrors the natural world, with calming wood-paneled walls, pots of leafy plants, massive windows overlooking small gardens, and cozy gathering spaces painted in gentle greens, browns, and other natural hues. Its indoor classrooms carry the names of Minnesota ecosystems: The Forest. The River. The Prairie. The Lakes. Even the school's namesake—the beautiful and endangered Karner blue butterfly—comes from nature.
Karner Blue's natural design and mission are strategic. "Nature builds self-confidence, self-esteem, and connection to others," says Val Rae Boe, the school's principal. "Nature is like this little piece that makes [our students] whole."
Karner Blue is Boe's passion and dream.
She became interested in nature-based learning while working on her master's in special education and, later, her doctorate in educational leadership. During this time, she read about Green Chimneys, a nature-based school in Brewster, New York, that had great success with children with emotional and behavioral issues. The school's nature-based curriculum, complete with a farm and wildlife center, improved students' self-esteem, social skills, and coping abilities.
Intrigued, Boe pored through research, learning that science strongly supported the integration of nature in educational settings. According to the North American Association for Environmental Education, nature-based learning increases empathy, self-confidence, and test scores—in all children, not only those with special needs. Boe dreamed of one day being involved in a Minnesota school similar to the one in New York.
In 2012, Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 offered her the opportunity. As an educational service cooperative, 916 provides its 14 member districts nontraditional educational opportunities that are too expensive or difficult for schools to provide on their own. When its member districts, which include Stillwater and St. Francis, experienced an increase in young children with special needs, 916 approved construction of two K-8 schools and a secondary school, paving the way for Karner Blue. Superintendent Connie Hayes tapped Boe, at the time a principal at another 916 school, to be part of the project.
"I was so fortunate to have [the district] tell me you decide the theme, you decide the philosophy," she says. "Who gets to do that?"
Boe was deeply involved in the school's design. She worked with representatives from all of the member districts—as well as students, parents, disability advocates, staff, and architects—to create a school that would help those with special needs be as successful as possible.
"One of the things we identified early on was that we wanted a compassionate school philosophy that understands our students' trauma and supports them through it in a way that helps them more quickly build relationships with staff and feel safe," says Boe. Given the research, immersing the school in nature seemed like the best way to do that.
The district chose a school location next to the Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area, which is managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The lot offered a dense thicket of woods, native prairie grasses, a pond, and a plethora of birds, deer, and other wildlife. Before work even began on the building, Boe and newly hired curriculum support teacher Steve Scott contacted the DNR to create a school forest on the grounds. School forests are outdoor classrooms co-managed by Minnesota schools and the DNR. Thanks to the passing of the 1949 School Forest Law, there are now more than 130 such plots around the state serving roughly 50,000 students.
Having a designated forest on site at Karner Blue opened up a host of opportunities for the school, including assistance from DNR foresters, access to educational materials, and continued support for wildlife projects.
"We're really blessed with our location because we've been able to team with our DNR SNA neighbors," Scott says. As part of his science classes, he routinely leads students on outings to the forest, where they perform trail maintenance tasks.
"The school forest helps [the students] internalize and use the skills we're trying to teach in the classroom," he says. "The kids love the hands-on stewardship tasks to take care of our forest, so they are motivated to use tools we're teaching them—because if they're not in a place where they can be safe, they can't experience those things."
Classrooms at Karner Blue are studies in controlled chaos. The educator-to-student ratio is nearly 1 to 1. On a recent school day, the five boys who make up the 2nd-to-4th- grade class are having a hard time staying on task. All have autism, which can cause overstimulation and make it difficult to pay attention. Some struggle with self-regulation. One boy begins crying and shouting and must be led from the class by an assistant. This upsets the other boys, whose educational assistants gently try to redirect them. It doesn't work. Scott, who is leading the class, continues unfazed. He smiles at the boys, walks around the room, and stops to engage each one. Eventually, he asks if they'd like to go outside into the forest. It's a siren song. The boys snap to attention, get their coats, and eagerly line up by the door.
Once they're outside, their behavior changes so completely that they seem like different kids. Gone are the outbursts, the inability to pay attention, the lack of interest. Instead, the boys become calm and engaged. Scott continues the lesson to enthusiastic smiles, using the forest to show the kids physical examples of Minnesota's biomes, from prairie grass to pine trees.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the outing, though, is the little boy who finds the paw print. Seven-year-old Hunter spends most days in complete silence. But out in the forest today, he speaks.
His mother, Jamie, later says this is a recent development—a direct result of Hunter's daily interaction with the school forest. Hunter started at Karner Blue in kindergarten, after being recommended by a preschool special education teacher in the Spring Lake Park school district. Jamie says Hunter's immersion in nature has helped him learn to interact with people—something that can be particularly challenging for those with autism.
"He comes home excited about being outside," she says. "He likes nature, so when he can interact with creepy-crawlies, you can see the sparkle in his eye and see him connect with the world around him and with other people."
And that, says autism and special education teacher Stephanie Snow, is the whole point of the school forest—and Karner Blue's mission overall.
"A lot of our students have limited ability to speak and communicate because of their disabilities, but the coolest thing about nature is that you don't have to speak, so you see kids come out of their shells," says Snow. "Kids who don't typically have a lot of eye contact will suddenly look at you, and look at nature, and look at you again. That's huge."
Snow uses the forest for walks, reading activities, and math. She says the kids are more engaged when the lessons are tied to leaves, branches, and other parts of nature they can see, smell, and touch. That was the case with one of her newest students, who refused to participate in class—that is, until she encouraged him to build a birdhouse for the forest. Each day, as he worked on the house, he blossomed a bit more. When he finished, he wrote a little note on it: Dear birds, I hope you like this birdhouse because I want you to be safe.
"So this kid, who just hated school and didn't want to learn, now just loves being at school and playing games and being engaged in the things around him," Snow says, "and that's all because we are able to use the school forest."
Karner Blue's reputation as a rich, nature-infused learning environment has drawn quite a bit of parental attention. Staff continually field calls from parents about admission, explaining that students must be referred by their home districts. Some students stay at Karner Blue only as long as it takes them to learn the skills necessary to navigate a mainstream school. Others stay through 8th grade.
In its first year in operation, Karner Blue enrolled 84 students. Today, 104 students attend the school. Since Karner Blue opened in 2014, 61 of its students have transitioned back to their home districts—though Boe notes some of those children later returned to Karner Blue, typically because their home districts didn't have the facilities Karner Blue provides.
Jamie hopes her son, Hunter, will eventually be able to transition into a mainstream environment. She's encouraged by the changes she has seen in him, and she's cautiously confident they will continue. Jamie says kids deserve schools that encourage outdoor learning and a connection with the environment. And she believes Minnesota, with its natural beauty and commitment to a school forest program, can spearhead the effort to better integrate nature and education. She hopes Karner Blue is just the start.
"Once upon a time I worried about Hunter not having friends or having a bleak future. And while I still worry about him, I have less fear. Because I know he's learning the skills that will help him be successful."