Butterfly Activities For Kids: Raising Caterpillars And Butterflies
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Most of us have fond memories of a jar captured caterpillar and its metamorphosis in spring. Teaching kids about caterpillars informs them of the cycle of life and the importance of every living thing on this planet. It is also a feat of natural magic that widens the eyes and amazes the senses. Get some tips here on how to raise butterflies and help your kids enjoy the miracle of transformation that takes place from squishy caterpillar to elegant butterfly.
Raising Caterpillars and Butterflies
There are many stages a caterpillar has to endure before finally emerging as a moth or butterfly. Each phase is fascinating and has a lesson to teach. Raising caterpillars and butterflies provides a window into one of nature’s little miracles and is a unique way to add beauty and mystery to your garden once your charges are released.
You can build a butterfly house to raise and attract these beautiful insects or simply go low tech and use a mason jar. Either way, the experience will take you back to your childhood and yield a bond between you and your child.
Teaching kids about caterpillars allows you a unique opportunity to show them the steps in a life cycle. Most caterpillars go through five instars, or stages of growth, followed by the pupal phase and then adulthood. Caterpillars are actually the larvae of any number of winged insects. Remember, the biology lessons of your elementary school years and you will know that these are the babies of the fabulous butterflies and moths found in your region.
Butterflies are beloved for their beauty and grace and a natural choice to raise and teach children about this intriguing life cycle.
How to Raise Butterflies
There is a seemingly endless variety of colors, tones, sizes and forms of butterflies and moths. Each has a particular host plant, so your best bet for capturing one of the larvae is to look under and around leaves.
- Milkweed attracts Monarch butterflies.
- Several species of moth target our veggies, such as tomato and broccoli.
- On parsley, fennel or dill, you may find the black swallowtail butterfly larvae.
- The huge impressive Luna moth enjoys feasting on walnut tree leaves and sweetgum.
If you don’t know what you have captured, don’t worry. In time the resulting moth or butterfly will be revealed. The best time to go hunting caterpillars is spring and again in fall, but they are also abundant in summer. It simply depends what species is currently getting ready to pupate.
Butterfly Activities for Kids
Raising caterpillars and butterflies is easy and fun. Build a butterfly house around a found caterpillar by framing a target plant with a tomato cage and netting.
You can also bring the caterpillar indoors in a Mason jar or aquarium. Just ensure the opening will be large enough to release a winged creature without damaging it.
- Poke holes in the lid to provide air and line the bottom of the container with 2 inches of soil or sand.
- Provide the larvae with the leaves from the plant upon which you found the creature. You can save some leaves for daily feeding in the refrigerator in a bag with a moist paper towel. Most caterpillars will need 1 to 2 leaves per day.
- Put some sticks inside the container for the caterpillar to spin its cocoon upon. Once the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon, place a damp sponge inside the enclosure to provide moisture. Keep the bottom of the enclosure clean and mist the container occasionally.
Emergence will depend upon the species and the length of time it takes for it to complete its metamorphosis. You can keep the butterfly or moth for a few days to observe it in a mesh cage but make sure to release it so it can continue its reproductive cycle.
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Teach Your Kids About …. Butterflies
Spring is here, and that means that butterflies will be coming soon! The amazing process of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is completely fascinating (and not just for kids!) Here’s a round up of some great resources to teach your kids all about butterflies.
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Last spring, our family had the opportunity to raise little larvae through their caterpillar growth until we released them as full-grown Painted Lady butterflies. It was a really interesting experience. Even I learned so much about butterflies that I’d never known before. (Did you know that they pop their caterpillar heads when they make their chrysalis? THAT was a weird and freaky moment!) Seeing the process in action is absolutely the best way to learn about the butterfly life cycle. If you are interested in raising your own butterflies, you will need to either find your own eggs, or buy a kit.
Where to Buy Caterpillar Kits (in Canada):
- Butterflies & Roses (Monarchs or Painted Ladies)
- Lucy’s Butterfly Farm (Painted Ladies)
- Butterfly Kits (Painted Ladies)
- CHER (Painted Ladies)
- Flutterbuys (Painted Ladies)
- Butterfly Wings ‘N’ Wishes (Painted Ladies)
- Education Station (Painted Ladies)
- Boreal Science (Painted Ladies
Find your own eggs:
- Techniques for Obtaining Immatures by Raising Butterflies [Wealth of information on this website]
- How to find and raise Monarch Eggs by Nebraska Wildlife
- Rearing Monarchs by MonarchWatch
Raising Butterflies Observation
- Butterfly Curricula on the Butterfly Website – 5 lessons (primary grades)
- Science Lesson Plans for Butterfly Life Cycle – 4 lessons at Glorious-Butterfly
- Lifecycle of a Butterfly Theme Unit – 6 lessons for Grade one
- Teacher’s Guide: Butterflies
- Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly Video (uses captions)
- Life Cycle of a Butterfly with Pasta Printable Craft (+ cutting, colouring, and printing activities) by MamaMiss
- Butterfly Life Cycle Flashcards bu Jojoebi Designs
- Butterfly Lifecycle Book by Dishing It Out
- Lifecycle of a Butterfly Worksheets by Golden Rule Design
Activities and Crafts
- From Caterpillar to Butterfly (A Preschool Butterfly Day) by Jojoebi Designs
- Butterfly Suncatcher by Minieco
- Caterpillar Crafts by Danielle’s Place
- Symmetrical Butterfly Craft by Heart of the Matter
- Coffee Filter Butterfly on HoneyAndLime.co
- Butterfly Snacks
- Butterfly Crafts and Activities on Squish Preschool Ideas
- Butterfly Lapbook on Homeschool Share
- Butterfly Lapbook on Lapbook Lessons
- Butterfly Lapbook on Homeschool Helper
- Butterflies of Canada References from Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility
- Butterflies North & South from Virtual Museum
- Monarch Butterflies by Hinterland’s Who’s Who
- Monarch Butterflies by Canadian Geographic
- Butterflies of Ontario
- North American Butterfly Association (NABA)
- Butterfly Identification Guide by Discover Life
- Butterflies of Nova Scotia
- Butterflies of America (photos)
- How to keep a Butterfly Observation Journal by A Penchant for Paper
- Butterfly Gardening by Pollination Canada
- Creating a Butterfly Garden by Blue Willow Garden & Landscape Design.
- Building a Butterfly Garden by Scholastic
Butterfly Conservatories in Canada
- Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara, ON
- Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, ON [They have homeschool programs]
- Devonian Botanical Garden near Edmonton, AB
- Victoria Butterfly Garden in Victoria, BC
Kids Butterfly Garden: Our Experience
The girls woke up each morning wanting to look at their caterpillars and how much they grew! It really was remarkable how quickly they grew from teeny tiny little caterpillars, to big ‘ol things that barely fit in the cup anymore!
At home with the kids? Instantly access any of these printable activity bundles to keep them learning!
I’ve always known of course that caterpillars turn into butterflies, but watching the process was super fascinating to me! I wish I would have taken a picture of all 5 of the caterpillars hanging upside down right before they entered the Chrysalis stage. It was so cool!
I briefly taught my girls the life stage of a butterfly with these cute printables that I got here, and we did several butterfly activities throughout the week, including making these kids butterfly sandwiches using Smuckers Uncrustables.
What I loved about the kids butterfly garden kit is that it entertained us for over a week and every single stage was super fun and educational. One of the first butterflies emerged while our family was eating breakfast one morning, it was truly fascinating for all of us! Once again, I should have taken a picture of it! We were too “in the moment” to think about it.
kids butterfly garden habitat
Even my husband got really into it. The day we let the butterflies go, he came home and noticed immediately that they were gone. He was all, “What. You guys let them go without me?”
I had no idea he would be so disappointed to be left out on the fun, so now we are ordering another kit!
What would be another fun idea for a DIY subscription box? We’ll let you know what we do this next month!
Choosing Flowers for a Butterfly Garden
We did a little research online to discover which plants attract butterflies the most. We’re pretty lucky and have a butterfly rainforest in our community so we also can go there for inspiration on what to plant. One big tip I want to share is to choose plants that are native to your area. It can make a huge different on the environment when you choose plants that are meant to be in your zone.
We live in Florida so we choose plants that are native to here to plant. We’ve have a lot of success over the years with planting zinnias and milkweed in our garden to attract the local butterflies to eat. Plus they attract pollinators too which help our environment too.
We choose the follow flowers for our garden to attract the butterflies…
- Coreopsis (the yellow flowering plant we added for color and for flowers to pick)
Whenever possible try to choose Native Plants. They are best for the environment to conserve water and attract the appropriate wildlife. The girls went to the local plant nursery with me to pick out these flowers. Once we got home they got straight to work, they couldn’t wait!
How to Attract Monarch Butterflies to Lay Eggs in Your Butterfly Garden with Host Plants
We’ve been very lucky to have planted a milkweed plant, actually, it was cuttings from a neighbor from her plant that roots in water and then has expanded through seed pods to a few plants.
Here’s a peek at our Milkweed this year. We just discovered 7 caterpillars beginning to take their course on our plant. We actually brought a few in to watch about a month ago so this has been an ongoing science project at our house. The main this to remember is that you need to plant the very specific plants that the butterflies will lay their eggs on.
TIP Milkweed, parsley and fennel seem to be the easiest for me to grow in our garden.
Use Host Plants for Attracting Butterflies
- Zebra Swallowtail – paw paw tree
- Monarch – milkweed
- Painted Lady – hollyhocks and thistle
- Black Swallowtail – fennel, carrots, parsley
- Giant Swallowtail – citrus tree, prickly ash tree
- Pipevine Swallowtail – Dutchman’s pipevine
- Tiger Swallowtail – tulip poplar, wild cherry tree
- Spicebush Swallowtail – spicebush, sassafras tree
- Red Admiral – false nettles
- Silvery Checkerspot – purple coneflowers
- Sulphur butterfly – white clover and legumes
- Cabbage white – nasturtium, spider flowers(Cleome)
- Pearl Crescent – asters
- Variegated & Gulf Fritillary – passion vines
- Great Spangled Fritillary – violets
Nector Rich Flowers for Butterflies
- Butterfly Bush
- Mexican Sunflower
- Cone Flower
- Blackeyed Susan
Here’s our little visitors this week in our backyard. My kids are so excited to go and watch them each day. Have you ever had caterpillars at your home?
Giving Ownership in the Garden to Support Raising Eco-Friendly Kids
The main goal is to engage youth and families around the world to be aware of, involved with, and connected to each other and the earth and to empower them to learn about the environment and explore creative new ways to live in harmony.
Creating this butterfly environment in our yard I feel helped to chose my kids this continual cycle that happens when you put effort to help support it. Out next step is to really focus on our garden to begin to grow vegetables.
Being inspired my kids wanted to take action and took charge on planting the flowers in our garden. We choose the area around our front door so that we would have a higher chance of seeing when the butterflies can to visit our home.
Watch this video of a monarch that stopped by to enjoy our Zinnia flowers this past spring. They planted a few plants where are Zinnia’s return each year on their own. Can’t wait to share with you in a few months.
Container Planting for Attracting Butterflies
They also planted the big pots at our front door so that they could be responsible for some flowers on their own. Each day they’ll get a chance to take turns watering the flowers with their special watering can. It’s when we give the little things to our children to be responsible for, you will discover how these tasks grow into them having the ability to see when additional tasks will need to be done.
Here’s a peek at their finished pots. Love the color combo. As the plants fill in a bit, I will transfer them to different areas in the yard so that the smaller container doesn’t become root bound, just wanted to give you that heads up. Plus these are plants that are perennials that will come back year after year which is best for our environment too.
Tell us about your backyard garden and how you’re planning to get your family involved?
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About Kim Vij
Early childhood teacher, author, speaker and mom of 3. Kim shares ways to make learning fun and parenting an adventure by sharing developmentally appropriate activities.
You have so many great tips here – I love seeing butterflies flying around here, and we’re going to be revamping our garden “soon” – this will be a great help for me! #client
- Book about butterflies such as Butterflies by Fran Howard or Caterpillar to Butterfly by Laura Marsh
- Butterfly Garden Kit
- Cup of Caterpillars
Before you begin raising the caterpillars, read a book about butterflies. Then set out the cup on a table or counter and explain to the children that the caterpillars will eat the food provided in the cup. The caterpillars will continue to grow and shed their skin about five times before getting into position at the top of the cup to create their chrysalis. At this time children need to be careful not to jostle the cup. If the caterpillars fall during this process, they may not properly go through metamorphosis.
Once the chrysalis has formed you can then take them out of the cup and place them in your butterfly garden. The caterpillars spend several days in the chrysalis transforming into adult butterflies. Preschoolers will enjoy watching the chrysalis for signs that the butterfly is ready to emerge.
Once the butterflies emerge they will take a few days to dry out their wings and gain some strength. Preschoolers will love watching the monarch butterflies feed on sugar water or orange slices! After a few days it will be time to release the butterflies.
On release day, make sure you are in a warm, sunny spot, protected from the wind. These little butterflies will stay in their butterfly garden if it is too cool or windy.
How to Raise Butterflies
Last Updated: February 20, 2021 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Pippa Elliott, MRCVS. Dr. Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS is a veterinarian with over 30 years of experience in veterinary surgery and companion animal practice. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1987 with a degree in veterinary medicine and surgery. She has worked at the same animal clinic in her hometown for over 20 years.
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Look out your window and see a beautiful butterfly flutter past you. Amazingly, such beauty originated from an inch long, garden dwelling caterpillar that probably feasted on your prized roses. As you stare longingly at the butterfly, you think to yourself, "If only there were another way." And then it hits you – "Raise them myself!"
Raising Butterflies Indoors
Raising butterflies indoors is just plain fun as well as being educational, organic, scientific, and amazing. I have found that it fascinates people from a range of 18 months old to 80 years old. A lady friend who lives close by said that in all her 80-some years of life she had never witnessed a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis and then into a butterfly. She was thrilled and awed by the transformation.
Raising eggs, caterpillars and butterflies is also a low cost hobby especially considering all you get out of it. In order to raise a butterfly from an egg or a caterpillar, you must have a plant to feed the caterpillar. Many of the plants to feed the caterpillars (host plants) are common in our gardens or in the wild. The feeding of a caterpillar can decimate a plant but rarely kills it so you can use the plant for many seasons assuming it is a perennial. You can find out more about host plants by visiting the article, What Do Caterpillars Eat.
Other things that you need to raise a butterfly indoors include items which you probably already have around. For example, you may want some sticks for the caterpillars to wander around on and find a place to attach their chrysalis, otherwise they can just use the walls/top of their inclosure. In an open environment, an easy way to hold the sticks up is to stick them down in a plastic pot with some soil. You may also need something to hold your host plant cuttings to feed the caterpillars. If the host plant is in the ground rather than a pot then you can take cuttings from the plant and stick them through holes in the top of a plastic container filled with water. Make a Caterpillar Home Indoors offers some ideas about set-ups for raising caterpillars. The point is that you can most likely find everything you need right around your home.
To raise a butterfly you will have to start with an egg or a caterpillar. Of course you could also find a chrysalis to bring indoors but they can be harder to find and you will miss out on a lot of the action. Please explore our other articles for more details about finding a caterpillar or finding butterfly eggs outdoors. If you start with a fresh butterfly egg you can expect to wait about 3-7 days for it to hatch. The butterfly larva (caterpillar) will eat and grow for about 2-4 weeks. It will then turn into a chrysalis and the butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis in about 1-2 weeks. These time periods can vary dramatically based on the time of the year and the butterfly species.
When your butterfly ecloses (emerges) from the chrysalis it will not be able to fly for several hours as it pumps its wings up and dries them out. They are so fresh and brilliantly colored as they ready themselves for flight. In the stage right before they fly they will often stay on your fingers and stretch their beautiful wings. My kids love it. The butterfly can be released as soon as it is able to fly or it can stay indoors for about 24 hours and then it will need to be released to find some butterfly food (nectar).
I hope this overview of raising butterflies indoors is helpful. It is a delightful hobby. We are a growing website and will continue to add more articles and webpages. Please bookmark us and visit our other articles for more details about raising butterflies indoors and butterfly gardening.