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. Read on for highlights of other classrooms that have taken wing.

Learning Soars in Butterfly Garden
"Our students have certainly learned the basics about butterflies and the plants they depend on, but our butterfly garden has yielded an even richer harvest than that," says fifth grade, Orion, IL, teacher Marcia Whitmore. "What we've learned in this microcosm has prompted a richer understanding of ecology and the need to conserve habitats in other parts of the world," she adds.

Marcia's students regularly bring journals to the butterfly garden to record weather data and observations of butterfly visitors and the plants they frequent. "I want them to appreciate that if you're going to be interested in the natural world, you need more than casual observations. It's best to carefully observe and keep good records, then review data and patterns that emerge," she explains.

Her students' keen attention to detail has had its rewards. For instance, some students noticed that the zinnias and marigolds they'd raised weren't attracting as many winged visitors as the asters, big bluestem, bergamot, and other wildflowers in the garden. This prompted further observations and a discussion of why native plants might be most appropriate for local wildlife. "When they looked more closely, the students had a tough time finding the nectar on some of our classroom-grown plants, and began to appreciate that the wild plants and butterflies were better adapted to one another," says Marcia.

Students' curiosity about the colors and patterns on many butterflies yielded a "real life" lesson on adaptations. Their research revealed that such characteristics helped the creatures survive. They learned that monarchs, for instance, eat milkweed and incorporate its toxins into their bodies. This makes them distasteful to birds who avoid not only the monarch, but also the viceroy, which mimics the monarch patterns.

Classroom Butterfly Nursery
"My keen observers also learned how to spot butterfly eggs and identify caterpillars on the underside of leaves," says Marcia. They found black swallowtail caterpillars on Queen Anne's lace and dill, and plenty of monarch caterpillars on milkweed, then set up recycled bottle chambers in the classroom to rear the insects. "Student observations and questions often lead to experiments," notes Marcia. For instance, one group speculated that the waste produced by caterpillars might be a good plant fertilizer, and plans to set up an investigation to test their hypothesis.

Inquiry on the 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."

The class 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 young scientist even tried setting out a tray 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 understand that flowers and plants have much more importance than simply the aesthetic value we humans perceive."

Got Milkweed?
Entrepreneurs Expedite Metamorphosis

Students in the gardening club at Casselberry Elementary School in Casselberry, FL, have filled an entire 10- by 10-foot garden bed with a species of native milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterfly larvae. Their goal? To raise and track the eastern migration path of Monarchs to Mexico and raise money for their outdoor classroom. To enable others to experience the magical metamorphosis they'd witnessed, the students established a company to produce Monarch chrysalides in the classroom. (The larvae dined on their garden-raised milkweed.) They introduced the project to others by distributing a chrysalis they'd nurtured to each classroom, pre-K through grade 5, then asked students to release the emerging butterflies near the club's nectar-producing flower beds. This was such a success that the young entrepreneurs decided to sell chrysalid "trees" (with 1 to 5 pupae each) so students, teachers, and parents could release Monarchs in neighborhood gardens. Each sale includes a student-designed brochure with care instructions and information on Monarch migrations.

The products must have delighted the first 200 buyers; 600 new orders are now waiting to be filled! Buoyed by their booming business, club members have dreamed up other products -- worm farms, ladybug lodges, and praying mantis terraria -- that might inspire learning and yield a profit. "I originally had vegetable gardens in mind, but it was student impetus that moved this project forward instead," says fifth grade teacher Frances Guest. "There's no question that they are much more committed to a project when they're in charge!"

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