Marveling at Metamorphosis

By Lauren Matheou, Teacher

Spring quarter brought warmer weather and new life to our outdoor environment. The children in West AM were noticing blossoms on our trees, pollen on our outdoor surfaces, birds in their nests and wild baby rabbits, who scampered through our yard. Every spring we order painted lady caterpillars through a science education supply vendor so we can study their life cycle as we celebrate spring and wrap up our academic year. The many changes from small caterpillar to butterfly provide rich opportunities for observation over the course of several weeks. This spring, we kept track of the stages of insect development as we eagerly awaited the emergence of the butterflies.

examining caterpillars using magnifying glass

We also raised some monarch caterpillars and eggs found in the neighborhood and compared them to our painted ladies. I learned about the monarch’s incredible migration several years ago during a visit to Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, a monarch preserve. A friend who raises monarch butterflies inspired me to help the declining monarch population. Watching their metamorphosis is a full sensory experience from start to finish and can easily spark a classroom project. The rapid growth of the caterpillar over two weeks’ time is captivating. Children loved to study the caterpillars’ vibrant white, black and yellow striped bodies. As they grew bigger, one could even hear them crunching on milkweed leaves, the larva’s sole food source. 

The caterpillars molted by shedding their skin every three or four days, almost doubling in size each time and eventually reaching about the size of a child’s long finger. They went through five cycles and by the end we saw they had developed a pair of tentacles at each end. When the caterpillars were fully grown, they were sturdy enough for young hands to hold, and some children enjoyed having this opportunity. They also liked watching caterpillars develop into beautiful green chrysalises, which are flecked with gold, and seeing the black and orange butterflies emerge. 

Children gained new vocabulary, such as “molt,” “chrysalis,” “frass,” “tentacles,” “larva” and “pupa,” as they learned about this process. They also learned how to distinguish female from male monarch butterflies: Males have a black spot on a vein on each hind wing. 

drawing of caterpillar

Some children came to consider the monarch caterpillars as temporary classmates. Arnold made portraits and proudly showed them to the caterpillars. One seemed to perch on the wall of the terrarium and watch him, and Arnold appreciated what a quiet and still subject the caterpillar was. Additionally, we sang a song at story time about the life cycle of the butterfly. An accompanying diagram spurred many questions within the large group. 

Johnny and Grace incorporated the butterfly life cycle into their dramatic play, “flying” around the yard to sip nectar, lay eggs inside the houses and cook up wholesome caterpillar food while protecting the precious babies from predators. 

Juliette enjoyed decorating the butterflies’ netted pavilion and created a mailbox for them. She then wrote letters to the caterpillars, just as the children in the class did for their peers. As the caterpillars transformed, she wished them a “Merry Chrysalis,” singing her good tidings to the tune of a familiar winter holiday melody. She also compiled a list of butterfly names suggested by her classmates and teachers. 

chart of monarch butterflies' metamorphosis

The children developed a connection with insects and with the process of metamorphosis. They were fascinated by flight. While they were attached to these caterpillars, they released the butterflies so they could return to their natural environment and connect with other butterflies. We documented the activities and displayed photos and descriptions on a display board so children could revisit their experiences. Since parents could not enter the school due to COVID-19 precautions, we placed the display at the entrance to the classroom at drop-off and pick-up times so children could share the process with their parents and caregivers. It was an enriching learning experience and we did our own small part to help the monarch population.