Learning Takes Flight

By Eve Pranis

"Too often children are asked to save the whales, the rainforest, the Earth," says habitat educator Judith Levicoff from the Philadelphia area. "Although they're all important issues, they are overwhelming concepts to a child. Children live in the moment and need immediate results for their efforts. Butterfly gardens are a way that kids of all ages can think globally and act locally."

Thanks to Judith's Magical Migrating Monarchs program in urban Philadelphia schools, elementary and middle school students in 14 classes raised Monarch butterflies indoors from caterpillars during the fall, then tagged and released them and charted their fall migration south. When the tagged butterflies are found by field scientists, the information helps provide researchers with important data on habitats. That winter, students learned about butterfly habitat needs, then worked in teams to select plants, plan, and plant gardens in schoolyards or lots in the community. Classrooms soon sported butterfly bulletin boards, poetry, migration maps, growth charts, and metamorphosis songs while schoolyards and community lots blossomed with flowers and butterfly wings.

Across the country, butterfly gardening indoors and out has sparked a metamorphosis of students' understanding about basic needs, life cycles, habitats, adaptations, plant/animal interactions -- and about making a difference in our environment. Here are some highlights from other classrooms that have taken wing:

* Ginny Elliot's third graders in Tama, IA, used their GrowLab to raise native host plants for butterfly larvae as well as nectar plants for mature butterflies. They collected seeds of native prairie species, simulated winter by chilling them, then successfully raised some indoors. "Although we set some in the butterfly garden," said Ginny, "the students made sure to return some plants to their original location."

Students also raised marigolds and zinnias and other annuals indoors to plant outside as nectar sources for their winged guests. They learned about the different conditions butterflies require to survive, and how to provide those conditions in their habitat. Students experimented with different types of plants and water supplies -- one student even tried setting out a try with rotten fruit to see which species it might attract. "In addition to learning about habitat needs and developing a greater appreciation for these creatures," said Ginny, "students came to understanding that flowers and plants have much more importance than simply the aesthetic value we humans perceive."

* Challenged to create an outdoor butterfly habitat, students in Charles Whitfield's middle school science club in Alexandria, VA, first pored over books to learn about butterfly needs and plant types. Using information on plant heights, colors, bloom time, etc., they spent the winter planning, mapping, and ordering seeds for a butterfly garden. They experimented with different conditions for germinating seeds, then entered the data on the computer and interpreted and discussed results in learning logs.

Charles reports that it's been a tremendous project for raising students's awareness of broader concepts of habitat destruction and loss. "Parents have reported that their kids have encouraged them to choose garden plants that will support wildlife," said Charles. "The students pay more attention to relevant newspaper articles. The project has helped them begin to develop an interest, the language, and tools to assess environmental issues.

* Students at more than 70 Palm Beach County, FL schools, as part of Project Butterfly Garden, are maintaining butterfly gardens, suing mainly native plants and organic methods. Rotary Club members, Audubon and Sierra Club members, garden clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, nursery owners, and Master Gardeners are helping students raise plants, create gardens, and identify butterflies. Some of the classrooms are also starting a pen pal link with schools from Canada to Mexico, sharing butterfly gardening stories and following the monarchs north in the spring and south in the fall.

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