This week’s teacher feature shows how one of SEEC’s toddlers classes explored caterpillars and butterflies by reading books, looking at sculptures in the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, and pretending to be butterflies by wearing wings and flapping arms. Below you will find images from the lesson as well as reflections from the educators, Nuriya Gavin, Stephanie Lopez, and Julia Smith.
We were transitioning from a unit on construction and building to a unit on animals. A couple of weeks before this lesson, we had explored the idea that animals build different types of homes for themselves. For our lesson, we explored butterflies and talked about the process of a caterpillar building a chrysalis and becoming a butterfly.
In addition to connecting to the idea of animals as builders, we were drawn to learning about bugs and insects because the weather had been getting warmer and we were seeing more bugs out. We started eating snack outside and would see ants and other bugs as we ate. The children were also fascinated by the worms and grubs they dug up in the dirt box on the playground.
For objectives, we were hoping to show the children that some animals and bugs build homes by focusing on the caterpillar building a chrysalis. We wanted to introduce children to the life stages of the butterfly and help them to gain an understanding that even though the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly all look different, they are the same organism. Lastly, we wanted for our class to experience an outdoor butterfly habitat and have the opportunity to hunt for bugs while outside.
As a toddler class, we keep our circle times short but engaging. We typically start by asking the children what they already know about the topic we are going to explore. Then we will give them some new information usually using a book or video. In this instance, we talked about the bugs we were already familiar with and liked hunting for before turning our attention to butterflies. We discussed butterflies as we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We picked this book because of its big format and interactive design. We had butterfly puppets which we used to demonstrate how a butterfly moves. Knowing that some of our children get nervous around flying bugs, we wanted to give our children the opportunity to explore the toy butterflies before experiencing the real thing. To finish the circle time, we gave the children a chance to move their bodies and flap their arms like wings.
For our museum outing, we chose to visit the wooden sculptures that are part of the new HABITAT installation. These caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly sculptures happen to be in the Pollinator Garden which is an area that we frequent. We often walk through the garden on our way to other visits and take the opportunity to check out the flowers and watch them grow, as well as look for bugs such as bumblebees. We noticed the new installation popping up around the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall. We were excited to make use of the new sculptures and very happy that we could tie it right in with our lessons!
In general, when we approach objects, we let the children look at them and explore them individually at first before explaining the purpose of our visit. This allows the children to form their own ideas and experience a deeper understanding. In this case, when we let the children look at the wooden sculptures of the butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalis, it triggered their imagination. They began flapping their arms like wings which reinforced the simple but important concepts that butterflies have wings, that they can fly, and that the movement of the wings is called flapping.
We encouraged the children to flap their arms like wings because from a practical point of view the children in our class can only sit or stand quietly for so long before they really need to move their bodies. So, we found a nice contained space within the garden where the children could continue pretending to be butterflies. Children this age need very concrete reminders of their physical boundaries. The stone bench that encircled this area was perfect for defining boundaries and freed us to engage even more actively in the play because we didn’t have to worry about the children running off.
We found it useful to both observe and actively join in on play. Sometimes watching gives us a better idea of what children are thinking as they play. For example, Julia watched the children starting to crawl along the benches pretending to be caterpillars. As she watched, she thought that they might be interested in exploring how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly so she pretended to curl up into a chrysalis and burst out like a butterfly. This was the perfect way to teach the children about one of our more complicated subjects – the idea that the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are all the same organism. Pretending to be the caterpillar, then forming the chrysalis, and finally emerging as a butterfly helped the children to realize that it was the same animal going through different stages. Since the children were partaking in free play, Julia opted to jump right into the play by physically pretending to be a caterpillar going through a metamorphosis. She provided the example and the children were able to decide if they wanted to join in going through the stages or if they wanted to continue with their free play.
To follow up this lesson, we continued to learn about different bugs. When we learned about worms, we talked about how caterpillars and worms are different because worms don’t have legs. While playing with model magic, some of the children decided that they wanted to make caterpillars, so we talked about how caterpillars move. Since they had many questions and seemed curious, we watched a few videos showing caterpillars moving, eating and transforming into a chrysalis and butterfly.
For other teachers trying out this lesson, we recommend really thinking about physical outdoor spaces that you could use for free play. We don’t think our lesson would have gone as well if we hadn’t had a safe space to allow the kids to play for a long time. In a more open environment, we would likely have cut the play much shorter as the kids got more excited and wanted to run and spread out. Play always works best when everyone, children and teachers, are comfortable.
If we had the opportunity to do this lesson over again, we would have incorporated the milkweed that we saw in the pollinator garden and tied it into the lesson plan more thoughtfully. We could have spent some time talking about monarch butterflies and exploring their unique relationship with the milkweed plant. It also would have been nice if we had seen more actual butterflies or caterpillars, but that is harder to plan.