A Home School Project Idea

A home school project idea that teaches organization, observation, spelling, scientific process of metamorphosis, and much more...

There is so much that kids can learn from following along with a butterfly hatching. Organization, note keeping and journalizing, observation skills, spelling, and the actual scientific process of metamorphosis will all be learned from this simple opportunity. This project has a wide age range of usability too. Both early ages, all the way up to high school ages, can learn from this experience.

Materials and Time

A large jar or other clear container with a lid

(We asked at our local grocery store for one of those giant sized clear tubs that they sell beef jerky from)


Water to keep milkweed fresh

Sticks that will fit in jar


Magnifying Glass



Expect this project to take up to two weeks from start to end, maybe a bit longer

As you collect the above supplies, think of somewhere that you can place the project once everything is gathered. Do not put the container directly in a window, as it will get too hot. Movement of the container should be kept to a minimum also, but remember that it should be placed in an area that it is easy to view, at all angles if possible.

In Search of Caterpillars and Questions

The easiest way to find caterpillars, and remember you will want to have several, is to look for milkweed. Milkweed is often referred to as "˜Butterfly' weed because it is a natural attractant for caterpillars and butterflies. Once you find the milkweed, the easiest and best way to gather up the caterpillars is to cut off the stems of the milkweed they are sitting on, keeping your hands off the caterpillars as much as possible. Even at this step, have the student keep a journal of both observations and any questions that they may have. Also, challenge them with questions you have.

What species of caterpillar/butterfly have you gathered?

What identifying marks help you to know the particular specie?

Where do caterpillars come from?

Are they born from another caterpillar, a butterfly, or are they hatched from an egg from the butterfly?

How long do they live as a caterpillar?

How long do they live as a butterfly?

What is molting?

What is metamorphosis?

Do other things go through metamorphosis?

What is their cocoon made of?

How do they make their cocoon?

Some of these questions can only have one answer, while others may have more than one simple answer. The answer to, "˜What is their cocoon made of?' can vary from just the silk they spin, to a leaf they roll themselves in and fasten together with the silk threads. Depending on the species you are studying, the answers may differ.

Once you have the caterpillars, place them carefully, still on their milkweed, into the container. A lid should be used, but be sure they have plenty of air circulation. Make sure to gather extra milkweed at the same time, and store in a bucket of water to keep it fresh. You will soon be amazed at how many milkweeds a caterpillar can eat in one day! Place a fresh supply daily into the container until all caterpillars are transformed into cocoons.

For the first few days there may not be much activity in your "˜butterfly house', other than a lot of eating and dropping of their natural waste. As this gathers in the bottom of the jar, you may be tempted to tidy this up a bit. Don't! You will likely do more damage through disturbance than any good that can come from cleaning up. The best thing you can do is to make sure at the start that the container is large enough. Soon activity will speed up. You will look once, nothing will be changed, and seemingly minutes later, a cocoon will be under way. Observation needs to be picked up! Watch as often as possible. Have your kids keep notes on times checked, and any activity that has occurred. As each cocoon is made, have them either name or number the cocoon with placement in the jar, and date and time the cocoon was started and finished if possible, and any other information they may think is important.

As fascinating a step as the building of the cocoons is, what is amazing is how fast they break out as butterflies. Once inside the cocoon, the caterpillar turns into a "˜pupa', or otherwise referred to as the chrysalis. With some species, this can take months, but with many more, such as with the Monarch, the whole process will happen in just a few days time. This is when the actual transformation is occurring. Wings and other parts of the soon to be butterfly are being enlarged. A light placed behind one at this step may give you a view into the cocoon. A magnifying glass can also be carefully used to see if you can peek inside at the developing going on inside the cocoon. Observation again needs to be picked up as hatching starts to occur. When a cocoon suddenly turns black, watch! One minute you will look and the cocoon will be whole, and seemingly minutes later, there will sit a butterfly. Their wings will appear squashed and children may assume something is wrong. Have them watch carefully! The butterfly will "˜pump' life into her wings. They will unfold into all their grandeur. Allow the butterfly to fully open her wings, giving several hours for this step. Once this stage has passed, they will be ready to be let go. Have your children carefully remove the stem the butterfly is sitting on. Have them place it next to a flower in your garden, or if they are willing, have them place their hand or finger next to the butterfly, and if they are lucky, they will be treated with one taking their first flight from their very own hand!

Once a butterfly has hatched and been released, take advantage of the leftovers! Have your kids' study with the microscope the pieces of the cocoon left behind. Look at the milkweed with the microscope. Ask them to write a poem or short story on how they felt when they let the butterflies go. Have them look up butterflies and caterpillars in an encyclopedia. Do they now recognize the words chrysalis, pupa, metamorphosis, and know the meaning of each one? Can older children explain metamorphosis? Next year, do not be surprised if your kids ask you if they can do this project again!

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