Kids, science and butterflies

Published on Tuesday, 07 September 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 07 September 2021

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Encouraging a child’s natural curiosity powers their ability to be amazing little scientists. Nurture this ability by combining a child’s love of butterflies and a citizen science project, sparking a fun investigative experience for learning and helping scientists to better understand our environment.

Citizen scientists are volunteers who participate in scientific projects, offering a handy springboard for hands-on learning.  The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) project is similar to a Where’s Wally discovery approach where children are asked to spot butterflies in the playground garden or during a visit to the park.

The warmth of Spring and Summer makes sightings more likely, simply introduce the children to the wonderful world of butterflies and their important role of spotting them outdoors for an educator to photograph.

Gather as many images as possible, then review the images with the children and ask them to describe what they see. Matching your butterfly photos with species will take some preplanning and the MBNZT provide a handy list to help.

This information can be entered on the website with details such as species, location, time and date information, which provides scientists with crucial information to better understand and care for these amazing insects. Families can also be invited to record butterfly sightings at home.

Butterflies in particular are a fun species to target. They are active during the day, and often large and brightly coloured, making them easier to spot. Kids love them and they’re one of our best-known insect species.

Pairing young children in a fun and exciting way with professional science promotes collaborative learning, encourages them to communicate and learn about the world around them. This project can be designed to engage children with a love of science and learning about the magical world of caterpillars and butterflies.

Joining in citizen science projects not only teaches scientific thinking, but it can also teach children to care for their world. By asking children to become little scientists and turning their backyard – or the playground – into a lab, they get to have a ‘real’ experience with projects contributing to our knowledge of the natural environment.

Similar projects to place on your citizen science calendar include:

Asks citizen scientists to help with a yearly bird count (around late June), providing a great outdoor activity to connect children with nature.

An Australian app using audio of frogs’ unique calls to identify various species and their locations. It’s used in New Zealand to record the location of introduced frogs such as the Green and Golden Bell Frog and Brown Tree Frog.

Create a butterfly garden

There are so many learning opportunities when young children get digging and helping out in the garden, it’s a fun activity to connect with nature and engage their senses and their minds.

A butterfly garden is all about creating a space brimming with vibrant and lively colour that provides a buffet for butterflies. And, when you think about colour, butterflies love red, yellow, orange, pink and purple nectar flowers.

To thrive the garden needs to be in a sunny, sheltered area. Like other insects, butterflies are cold-blooded and need the warmth of the sun to be able to fly. Also avoid using insecticidal sprays as these affect butterflies and caterpillars (not to mention bees and other beneficial insects) as much as the pests.

Besides being important pollinators, butterflies impact the whole environment. Their welfare is increasingly compromised by loss of habitat and pesticide use, as well as changes in climate and weather. Butterfly gardens are good for the environment.

Start off with a seed-planting lesson to nurture plants or buy some punnets from your local garden centre. A combination of both will speed up your garden plans. Hebes, Cosmos, Sunflowers, Echinaceas, Rudbeckias and Marigolds are all rich in nectar and beautiful in the garden.

A butterfly garden provides nectar and shelter for butterflies and other pollinating insects, and it can also provide a place for Monarch butterflies to lay their eggs.

Monarch’s need swan plants to lay eggs on. The Butterfly Musketeers recommend buying small swan plants in spring and cover them, allowing them to grow bushy and taller before you use these plants during the peak of summer. Hungry caterpillars will strip the plan quickly so you may need a few.

January is peak Monarch season, garden centres usually run out of swan plants so it’s important to have your own supply of plants ready for the influx of eggs and caterpillars. Plan ahead and grow from seed in September as being prepared is helpful.

Bring the brilliance of butterflies to life

From reading books through to observing its lifecycle, here are suggestions for fun butterfly learning opportunities:

  • Install a butterfly science centre using a variety of hands-on and visual materials to showcase the brilliance of butterflies. Colourful photos, a list of butterfly words (wings, antennas, caterpillar etc), magnifying glasses, non-fiction and fiction books, and display a lifecycle poster.
  • MBNZT sell Admiral eggs online with the specification that purchasers have knowledge of raising monarchs – and thus a good understanding of metamorphosis – as well as a good supply of stinging nettles, or the ability to acquire more. Its Māori name is kahukura, which means "red cloak." Or collect caterpillars from the garden with the plants they prefer to eat and place them in a safe and protective home such as a ‘caterpillar castle.’ This allows children to experience the real thing by observing and recording the lifecycle and fascinating process of metamorphosis.
  • Reading books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Incorporate a collection of books on caterpillars and butterflies to help children become familiar with the life cycle of the butterfly.
  • Craft, ask children to observe patterns and colours of butterfly wings and engage them with crafting their own creations. Try The Spruce Crafts for some bright butterfly ideas or MBNZT.

References and further resources:

Education Gazette: Birds, butterflies and local learning links

National Geographic Kids: Butterfly life cycle

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