Better Learning with Monarch Butterflies

Stephanie Spencer, at the Mariposa Monarca Preserve in Cerro Pelon, Mexico
Stephanie Spencer, at the Mariposa Monarca Preserve in Cerro Pelon, Mexico

Stephanie Spencer considers monarch butterflies a staple of classroom learning. As a first grade teacher, she brought monarchs into her classroom to illustrate required content on life cycles. Years later she began teaching third grade, and monarchs became the focus of her unit on migration. Through shifts in grade level and even state and national core standards, Spencer remains stalwart. “No matter what I teach, I’ll find a way to teach with monarchs!” she laughs.

Spencer is hardly alone. Across the country, more than 2,000 schools participate in the Monarch Watch program created by the University of Kansas. The Monarch Teachers Network, based in New Jersey, has trained more than 7,000 people since its formation in 2001. A migration tracking project called Journey North has involved as many as 23,000 participating schools in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada recent years, with most of them having their students watch for migrating monarchs as the season unfolds.

For Spencer, who teaches at Briarlake Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia, the fun begins at migration season each fall and winter. Her students eagerly await the arrival of the first monarchs to the school garden outside their windows. Once the monarchs have settled, they watch until at least one female deposits her eggs. Then they go outside and start collecting.

Soon every student is a monarch guardian, keeping watch over a tiny egg housed in a container on his or her desk. At the first sign of egg-hatching, all other classroom activity comes to a halt. The kids grab magnifying glasses and watch as the tiny caterpillars eat their own egg shells for their first meal. At recess, the students run out to collect milkweed leaves, which they feed the caterpillars every day till they’re large enough to form chrysalises. When the adult butterflies finally emerge, the students tag them and then release them to the outdoors.

It’s not a complicated process. No smart boards or iPads are required. But by the time the students have watched the butterflies lift off for their long journeys, “they’re hooked,” says Trecia Neal, a biologist at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, who has worked with Spencer and other teachers to incorporate monarchs into the classroom teaching.

Some say a small flock of orange and black butterflies can transform a classroom.

First of all, “you can teach any subject with monarchs,” says Neal. “Science, social studies, history, reading . . . . Kids are just fascinated!”

Terry Smith, an assistant professor of curriculum & instruction at Western Illinois University, agrees. For 14 years, he raised monarchs in his elementary classrooms in Hannibal, Missouri, getting such a reputation for his devotion to the monarchs that he became known as “The Butterfly Guy.” Now he teaches aspiring K-12 educators why monarchs are a powerful learning tool.

“The trick with kids is to make the learning stick,” Smith says. “When you teach with monarchs, you have students in the palm of your hand. They are curious, they are using tools, they are talking to each other, they are more alert and their questions are more sophisticated. There is so much involved: Science, math, higher-order thinking. “

Mrs. Spencer's Class in the garden
Mrs. Spencer’s Class in the garden

Even with less advanced learners, monarchs can stimulate new forms of discovery. Kim Reber teaches a Life Skills Support class in Reading, PA. Her students have significant physical and intellectual disabilities, but she says all of them have ways to relate to monarchs. Some simply appreciate the sensory experience of holding a delicate butterfly in their hand. Some relish the language around monarchs—all those important M words like monarch, milkweed, metamorphosis, migration, and Mexico. For others, especially those with relatives in Mexico, “the journey of the monarchs is something they really relate to,” Reber says.

Educators point out that monarchs also offer something fundamental to their students’ development: a chance to know real nature.

“I really believe monarchs are an incredible way to get students connected to natural world,” says Trecia Neal of Fernbank Science Center. “Many students don’t have that connection now—and not just urban kids, but also rural kids. They don’t go outside. They’re playing video games, they’re watching TV, they are latch-key kids. So they don’t know the outside world.”

Neal has seen firsthand what happens when kids no longer spend time in nature: they become reluctant to explore the outdoors, and fearful. “They’re scared of bees, butterflies, earthworms,” Neal says. “Even terrified. You take kids out into a forest and some will just start crying. It breaks my heart.”

Neal doesn’t find the situation hopeless, though. She believes that children’s innate curiosity for nature is there, lying dormant, and just needs stimulation. And she says monarchs provide the perfect introduction. She points out that there’s nothing threatening about small monarch eggs. “Teeny monarch caterpillars don’t frighten the kids, either,” she says. Before long, students are cheering as their monarchs flutter into the air. And that, she says, “leads them into the whole world.”

In Kim Reber’s classroom, students lack access to the natural world for other reasons. First, they live in an area so urbanized that there are very few trees or other plants growing around them. “There’s nothing green around here,” she says. “It’s a very poor school. My last classroom didn’t even have windows.” What’s more, her students with physical disabilities find it all but impossible to venture into natural areas near their home.  So monarchs are tiny but important ambassadors. “Monarchs bring the nature to them,” Kim says.

In some cases, students who study monarchs in the classroom have been inspired to continue their involvement after hours. Stephanie Spencer says that many of her current and former students encourage their parents to plant milkweed at home, or tag monarchs on their own time. Others go on to work in the school garden, tending plants that attract not just monarchs but a host of attractive butterflies species.

Not surprisingly, the students get emotionally invested in the plight of monarchs. “Last spring, we didn’t see a single monarch come through our gardens,” Spencer says. “The kids were just devastated.”

But even that, says Terry Smith, can be the starting point for powerful educational experiences. “When students learn about monarch declines, it gets them thinking about how humans affect nature, about big questions like how the economy in Mexico and monarch butterfly populations are connected,” Smith explains. And it’s meaningful to them that monarch declines are a real-life mystery—that scientists, not just students, are invested in figuring this out.

“Every year I tell my education students, ‘You want to be an excellent teacher, and to do that, you need to create an experience the students want to take part in.’” Smith says.

So whether students are searching for solutions to North American monarch declines or simply feeding milkweed leaves to a caterpillar, monarchs are giving them an engaging educational experience.

A Few Tips on Rearing Monarchs

  1. If possible, plant the milkweeds native to your area in your schoolyard. Remember: they are called “butterfly weeds” because they are so easy to propagate and establish for attracting lots of butterflies. They don’t take specialized horticultural skills to get them to grow!
  2. Await the arrival of monarchs to your milkweed. If you see a female depositing eggs, go outside and collect them. (Avoid purchasing monarchs for release and study from other areas.) Kim Reber doesn’t have milkweed at her school (yet!) but she goes out into nearby fields with her daughters every August to collect eggs for her classroom.
  3. Once you’ve collected your eggs, Stephanie Spencer recommends placing each one on a damp paper towel to ensure that it has enough moisture.
  4. It takes about five days for eggs to hatch. If you’re concerned about starting with monarch eggs, go out and look for newly emerged caterpillars on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Keep in mind that both eggs and caterpillars are heavily predated by other creatures, so you’re increasing their chance for survival by rearing them indoors.
  5. Provide a steady diet of milkweed leaves to the young caterpillars. Kim Reber stores her milkweed leaves in a school freezer until it’s time to feed the caterpillars. Keep the containers clean.
  6. In about 10-14 days, the fattened caterpillars will spin their chrysalises. These begin a beautiful jade green color, then change several times in the ensuing days.  After about 10-14 days, the chrysalis will become clear, signaling that the butterfly is about to emerge!
  7. Make sure the butterflies have enough room to spread and dry their wings. You can release them the next day.

For more on raising monarchs, see Monarch Lab’s informational sheet at



Great sources of lesson plans and other educational materials around monarchs:

Journey North

Monarch Watch

Monarchs in the Classroom



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