Teach the lifecycle of a butterfly and celebrate 40 years of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar

March 20, 2009, will be the 40th anniversary of the publication of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book loved by children for its parade of fanciful food, by parents for the healthy eating message, and by all for the artwork with splendid colors.

Are your students interested in the lifecycles of insects? Observing caterpillars and seeing the metamorphosis to the adult form is a common early childhood classroom activity in spring, culminating with the release of the adult butterflies. The NSTA elementary email list group recently responded to a request for butterfly resources with these suggestions (edited to create a list):

See the Teacher’s Guide from the Florida Museum of Natural History. It has some cool activities, crafts to make, lots of detailed information, and lists of resources Be sure to check the weather forecast! If we rear butterflies, we need to give them a shot at survival–which means you need to have warm enough temperatures for them to survive outside and appropriate nectar plants available outside once the butterflies hatch and you release them. Also, be sure to work around your spring break! You can’t predict exactly when the butterflies will emerge from their chrysalises and you don’t want it to be when you are gone for a week!

Click on the photo to enlarge.

The net housing for the adult butterflies is easy to make out of 4 paper plates, enough netting (fabric store) to go around the plates one and one-quarter times (and 30-60 centimeters wide), some tape, and a hot-glue gun.

  1. Tape the length of the rectangle of netting to the underside of one paper plate, being sure to overlap the width edges by about 10 cm (the overlap is the access for hands but the butterflies do not find it).
  2. Lay a line of hot glue around the edge of the plate (over the tape) and quickly put another paper plate on top of the glue.
  3. Repeat this with a second set of plates and the second width-edge, paying special attention to making the net overlap go the same direction as on the first set of plates.
  4. To hang the housing, poke 2 holes in one set of plates, reinforce with tape, and thread string through the holes.

Please note that almost all butterflies form a chrysalis, rather than a cocoon, when they grow and change into their pupa stage. I substitute the word ‘chrysalis’ for ‘cocoon’ when I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar (I even cross it off in my copy of the book so I will remember) but Eric Carle explains his reason for using the word on his website.

Tell children that as scientists we have special words to explain exactly what we mean when we talk about something with others. It helps to have examples of both chrysalides and cocoons to show children (save the empty ones). They often enjoy having the additional special vocabulary at their disposal.

What I tell people [about The Very Hungry Caterpillar] is to compare what we have observed about butterflies and what we have read in the book—what is “real” and where does the author’s imagination take flight? I think it’s a valuable point to discuss and I feel even young students can begin to appreciate the difference.

Butterfly resources at www.exploringnature.com:

See the article “Honeybees, Butterflies, and Ladybugs: Partners to Plants” in the February 2008 Science & Children.

Comment to add your suggestions to this list of resources.



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One Comment

  1. Scott Sala
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    First, I don’t know why we should ever stop using great picture books with any age! For example, a college student introduced me to “Ish” a few years ago and I get teary-eyed every time I read it. After working with preschoolers in the early part of my career (and being taught the names of most dinosaurs by a three year old), I don’t think it’s ever too early to introduce a healthy skepticism to printed material and the fact that people have different perspectives. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a great example here. We can enjoy the colorful artwork and the inventive construction, but we can also introduce the “Could this really happen?” concept and get students to begin to think about why an author would put something in a book that wasn’t true. Both facets would help even very young students toward the development of being critical consumers.

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