Learning about butterflies in the classroom, especially when observations of the life stages with a live learning kit are possible, is almost magic for children. The growth of the caterpillars is obvious and children can watch as they moult and pass through each instar. The voracious appetite of the caterpillars means that plants are quickly stripped of their leaves and, if children listen carefully, the munching of the mandibles can be heard.
Many resources to support an early childhood science biology unit about butterflies in particular, or minibeasts in general, already exist in the readilearn collection; including:
I included suggestions for teaching about minibeasts, including butterflies, in a previous post Classroom minibeasts. While there are many minibeasts suitable to study in the classroom, butterflies are my favourite. This week the readilearn collection has grown with some new resources to support learning about butterflies; including:
Butterfly word cards is a collection of forty butterfly-relevant words which may be printed and displayed on a word wall or used to label a butterfly display. The words are presented in three different formats for printing choice.
The words include some fascinating scientific terms; such as:
That I have an appreciation of and fascination with insects is no secret as I have written about it many times previously.
Some of my earliest posts formed a series in which I suggested using Eric Carle‘s Very Hungry Caterpillar story for developing critical literary, encouraging children to question the authenticity of what they read and the qualifications and intentions of the author.
Carle’s purpose with the story was to entertain, not to teach, and he was therefore unconcerned about inaccuracies in the butterfly life cycle.
The book, popular for its bright colourful illustrations and inspiring story of an ordinary caterpillar who becomes a beautiful butterfly achieves the author’s goal to entertain.
In a more recent post Revisiting The Very Hungry Caterpillar I provided a summary of, and links to, each of the four original posts which explained my recommendation that this very popular book was more relevant to teaching critical literacy than science.
Acknowledging the importance of maintaining Wondering in the everyday and an attachment with nature in wild spaces, I described my excitement at being able to observe every stage of the ladybird’s life cycle up close in my own backyard; an excitement that had perhaps exceeded observing the butterfly life cycle in the classroom with our live butterfly kits which had allowed us to Breathe – a sense of wonder! I even shared a section of a television interview in this post about Talking Interviews.
But the truth is I don’t really love allinsects. I’m not too keen on cockroaches, though the native Australian giant burrowing cockroaches are pretty cool. And although I am aware of vital roles of insects in the environment
as a food source for many animals
as pollinators for flowering plants
and I know that without them we’d basically not have an environment, in fact, we wouldn’t be; I often wonder whether we would be all that worse off without disease-spreading mosquitoes and flies. However, it seems that they too are vital to the health of our planet, whether we like them or not. It’s a bit of a “can’t live with them and can’t live without them” situation.
It took just one, then the word was out. The streets were abuzz with the news – a triumph of social media.
“Kyle’s having a barbecue. Tell everyone. Don’t bring anything. There’s always plenty.”
The excitement was palpable as guests swarmed towards Kyle’s. Some, initially unsure, flapped about nervously. Others, more experienced, felt they were dancing on the ceiling. Eventually all were on their way. The waft of seared flesh left no doubt about the location.
Kyle was ready when they arrived. “Who invited you?” he grinned and waved, as he knocked them out with the can of spray.
I have been privileged to spend time with young children throughout my adult life: my own, children I have taught, and now my grandchildren. Spending time with young children is one of the best ways of maintaining a sense of wonder and awe in the everyday. Opportunities abound, if one is willing to see the world afresh through their eyes,
the softness of petals in a newly opened flower
the collection of pollen on a bee’s legs as it rests within the flower
the snail’s silver trail on the pavement
where the puddle goes after the rain
how the toothpaste gets into the tube
how aeroplanes stay in the air
why the sky is blue
where clouds come from
why tigers have stripes and kangaroos hop
what came first: the chicken or the egg
One of my favourite ways of bringing the wonders of nature into the classroom is through observations of a live butterfly kit. We would watch the tiny caterpillars hatch, eat voraciously as they grew larger and larger, and then pupate before emerging triumphantly as beautiful butterflies.
There are many opportunities to notice, to question and to wonder:
What will happen if the caterpillars eat all the leaves?
How big will the caterpillars grow?
How long will it take for the caterpillar to change into a butterfly?
How does the caterpillar breathe?
Does the caterpillar know it is going to be a butterfly?
Does the butterfly remember being a caterpillar?
What happens to the caterpillar in the chrysalis?
Why do they poo so much?
We got to know that when a caterpillar was ready to pupate, it made a ‘j’ shape, hanging from under a leaf or branch, or from the top of the butterfly house. It would stay that way for a number of hours. Children (and teacher) would sneak over from time to time to see if anything was happening.
As soon as the caterpillar started wriggling, we would quietly rush over to watch as it shed its last skin to become a pupa. It is an amazing spectacle, one that is not often seen “in the wild”. In fact it is a very quick process, and unless someone just happened to be watching at the time, we would miss it. Although we didn’t see every caterpillar pupate, we saw enough to appreciate and wonder.
Equally as exciting was watching a butterfly emerge from the chrysalis. As the time was approaching the chrysalis would become transparent and we could see the shape and colour of the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis. Watching the butterfly push open the chrysalis and emerge with crumpled wings was amazing. Oftentimes the butterflies would emerge in the mornings before the children arrived. But sometimes they waited, and we all watched as the butterflies pumped up their wings and spread them to dry in readiness for flying.
When the butterflies’ wings were dry and they were almost ready to fly we would remove them from the house. If we timed it just right, we could hold them on our fingers, transferring carefully from fingertip to fingertip without touching the wings. When they were ready to fly, we would go outside and release them. The children loved to look for the butterflies at lunch time and learned that observation was the best way to appreciate them.
The children’s interest and excitement was shared with anyone who visited the classroom: administrators, other teachers and children, siblings and parents. I tend to think that the children’s sense of wonder may have ignited a spark in others too.
Watching the short stages of a butterfly’s life is a good way to get children thinking about life, its beauty and its frailty, its dangers and its strength. Watching the transformations that take place can certainly take one’s breath away. It is this that has inspired my response to Charli’s challenge. I hope you enjoy it.
I heard the scurry of footsteps. Then he was in the doorway; eyes ablaze, breathless.
“Come … quick … Miss,” he said, punctuating each word with puffs and pants.
Before I had moved, there were others behind him, imploring me to come.
With quickened pace I followed, hoping that I, that all, would be in time.
Others were there already, clustered around. I peered over their heads, expectantly, holding my breath in a vain attempt to make time stand still.
“Ahh!” we breathed in unison and awe as we watched the butterfly emerge from its now transparent shell.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.
If you didn’t participate in the poll, but would like to, have a go now.
What did you answer?
If you are familiar with this book
you may have chosen both statements as correct along with one third of respondents in the poll.
In his book Eric Carle writes that
“He (the caterpillar) built a small house, called a cocoon, around himself. He stayed inside for more than two weeks. Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out and . . . he was a beautiful butterfly!”
If you either read or wrote one of the hundreds of thousands of articles about “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, or about butterflies and caterpillars in general, published on the internet, you probably also identified those two statements as correct.
But if you did, just like Eric Carle, you’d be wrong!
A caterpillar that undergoes metamorphosis to become a butterfly does not spin a cocoon and does not nibble its way out. The fully grown caterpillar moults into a chrysalis and, when ready, it splits the chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.
For a series of beautiful photos showing the last moult of a caterpillar as it becomes a chrysalis, and another series showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, click here.
Or watch this video by Strang Entertainment showing the caterpillar becoming a chrysalis
or this one by Neil Bromhall showing a butterfly emerging
A moth’s caterpillar does spin a cocoon and does nibble its way out (think of a silkworm cocoon and moth).
This video shows silkworm caterpillars nibbling hungrily away at the mulberry leaves. Then when a caterpillar is fully grown (about 2 mins in) it spins it cocoon.
Compare the process with that of a monarch caterpillar forming a chrysalis. It is a very different thing.
It is impossible to rely on the information provided by many of the websites to guide one’s use of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” when working with children.
Though it’s a very brief picture book with sparse and simple language, The Very Hungry Caterpillar conveys an impressive array of wisdom and lessons for children. Most prominent among these is the life cycle of a caterpillar. The caterpillar in the story begins his life as an egg, then progresses through the larva stage. The time in his cocoon is his chrysalis stage, followed by his adult appearance as a butterfly.
This is a factually accurate portrayal of how lepidopterans (sic), an order of insects including butterflies and moths, grow and change. It teaches your child to understand this biological process. When you encounter a caterpillar, you can refer to The Very Hungry Caterpillar and ask your child about what it’s doing, since it’s likely to be looking for food. Likewise, you can reference the book when you see a butterfly, noting how it’s a caterpillar that has emerged from its cocoon after its transformation.”
You have already picked out the inaccuracies in that statement, haven’t you?
Another website, Primary upd8 also suggests using the book for teaching children about the butterfly’s life cycle, and look how it promotes itself!
“When speaking to teachers I often find raised eyebrows when I explain that butterflies’ larvae do not make cocoons. The teachers refer to Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where he refers to a ‘cocoon’.
Why does this misinformation persist, and why did Eric Carle use misleading statements in his book?
Does it matter if children (and adults) think that butterflies hatch out of cocoons?
Eric Carle didn’t seem to think it did.
Unfortunately I was unable to locate for confirmation an article I’d read years ago. This article, if I recall correctly, reported a response of Carle’s to children enquiring why he had used “cocoon” rather than “chrysalis”. His response was one of disdain. What did it matter?
If you search Eric Carle’s current website for cocoon, this is the response you will receive:
While Carle concedes that most butterflies come from a chrysalis, he triumphantly states that one rare genus pupates in a cocoon! I confirmed this with the Encyclopaedia Britannica .
Does that one rare instance let Carle off the hook?
“Actually, the Parnassians pupate inside cocoon-like webs usually constructed among leaves or in rubbish piles.” (my underlining)
So not quite true and not quite off the hook Eric Carle.
In addition, although I couldn’t find the article I was searching for, I found this from Scholastic which shows that Eric was aware of the error and declined to change it.
“By the way, Eric already knows that a caterpillar emerges from a chrysalis, not a cocoon! So don’t bother writing to tell him. Eric explains how the famous “mistake” crept into the book:
“My editor contacted a scientist, who said that it was permissible to use the word cocoon. Poetry over science. It simply would not have worked to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis!’ If we can accept giants tied down by dwarfs, genies in bottles, and knights who attack windmills, why can’t a caterpillar come out of a cocoon?”
There are many points for discussion in that statement:
His editor contacted a scientist – What sort of scientist? I would say one with questionable credentials or entomological knowledge.
Permissible to use the word “cocoon” – Why? For what purpose?
Poetry over science!!!!!!! Chrysalis is a beautiful word, specific to the butterfly. What could be more poetic than that? Poetic and scientific! What a great combination!
Why wouldn’t it have worked to say “Come out of your chrysalis”?
A caterpillar doesn’t come out of a cocoon. A caterpillar spins a cocoon; then a moth comes out of it; not a butterfly! (Except for the rare Parnassian butterfly.)
Is this issue, as Carle suggests, the same as giants and dwarfs, genies in bottles and knights who attack windmills?
What do you think?
Do picture book authors have a responsibility in imparting factual information to children?
“We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth”
Not quite the same thing I know, but an obligation nonetheless?
Though not there now, when I first looked at the Reading Rockets interview with Eric Carle this quote was prominently displayed beside it:
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
— Dr. Seuss
A bit ironic, don’t you think?
How much of the responsibility should remain with the reader to verify the correctness/accuracy of what is read? How does one go about that?
I have always been a believer in the “question everything” approach. “Don’t believe everything you read,” I say. But sometimes knowing what to accept and what to question can be a difficult thing.
I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment in the comment box.
Here are links to some of the articles I referred to in this post: