Make Way for the Monarchs

The following activity is part of a series we created to support students, teachers, and caregivers, during this unprecedented time. If you try this activity with your student(s), we’d love to see what you do. Share your journey via the #Inspired2Learn hashtag on your preferred social platform.

Created by: Jenna Fournel
Discipline:  Studying monarch butterflies can be useful in almost any discipline and can be adapted to any grade level.
Age level: Elementary through High School
Time: Ideal for a yearlong study in small increments every month.
Materials:  Milkweed seeds, magnifying glasses, potentially a monarch habitat if you will be bringing caterpillars inside, a spot on your school campus where a butterfly garden can be created. (This can be done in containers if your school does not have greenspace!)

Few lifecycles are as enticing to observe in their entirety as that of monarchs. Interestingly, the end of their life cycle often corresponds with the beginning of the school year and the start of their life cycle (or at least that of the plants they need to survive) begins when school is ending. Perhaps there is something useful in that timing, for even as we finish out a school year it is good to remember that this is just one more small step on our own long journey. And if you start this at the beginning of a school year – watching the transformation from a caterpillar into a creature that can fly is a powerful metaphor for the kind of transformation one can do through learning.

A study of butterflies can be useful in any discipline. 

  • Language Arts: The descriptive, narrative, sequential, and poetic language that flows from watching every stage of their fragile lives lends itself well to writing. And there are many excellent nonfiction and fiction texts that can be used for reading. 
  • Mathematics: Whether charting growth, studying statistics from migratory research, measuring change in weight and size, or considering exponents when calculating the growth or demise of populations, numbers abound in the information surrounding butterflies. 
  • Social Studies: What role do butterflies play in different cultures? How does the growth of human populations affect the places where butterflies live? What does migration look like? What laws are or should be put into place to protect endangered species?  
  • Science: This is, of course, at the heart of a study of butterflies but can get particularly interesting and far reaching when you study habitat destruction and its antidote – local activism to reverse that destruction. 
  • Visual and Performing Arts: Watching the wonder of a butterfly’s life cycle, and that of the plants they depend upon, offers an endless source of inspiration for every art form from dance, to painting, and more.

Where to begin: 

Depending on your discipline there are many ways to begin a study of monarchs and we provide links to excellent resources below that can help you plan. But at Inspired Teaching we like to start with questions – ideally those that come from your students. Consider the following approaches to starting a monarch unit or year of study. 

To garner guiding questions for your students: 

  • Create a KWL chart with your students to find out what they know, want to know, and eventually learn about monarchs. 
  • Show them a brief video about the life cycle of the monarch. Ask them to brainstorm a list of questions they have after watching the video. Turn those questions into the inquiries you’ll explore in your unit. 
  • Have students read a recent article about monarchs and generate a list of questions the article raises for them that they would like to study and learn more about. 

Overarching questions that could frame a study of monarchs: 

  • How do humans interfere with, and how might they help, the migration of monarch butterflies across North America? 
  • What does metamorphosis mean? 
  • What can a monarch teach us about survival? 
  • How does the wellbeing of butterflies impact my own life?  
  • What factors lead to the growth or decline of the monarch population? 

Arc of a yearlong live study of monarchs:  

September: Find a patch of milkweed either on your school campus or nearby and gather branches that have monarch eggs or caterpillars on them. Put them in a jar and put the jar in an enclosure like this that can be studied in your classroom. Create opportunities for your students to observe, reflect upon, and write about the growth of the caterpillars. (Keep replenishing the milkweed!)

October: Observe as your caterpillars turn into chrysalises and hatch into butterflies. Release the butterflies with your students and study how they will migrate south for the winter. Consider participating in Monarch Watch so you can tag the butterflies you release for scientific study. 

November: Learn more about what happens with the butterflies over the winter and what is happening to their habitat all along their migration route. 

December: Plan a spot for a butterfly garden on your school campus or in a park nearby and study what plants you would need to put in such a garden to support monarch butterflies. 

January-February: Figure out where to order milkweed seeds and what type to order for your temperate zone. Sites like this can be helpful and there are many that offer seeds for free. 

March: Start seeds indoors or break ground and purchase live plants to begin creating your butterfly garden. 

April – June: Care for the garden and have students create informational literature to explain the purpose of the garden to others. Keep track of the insects that visit and the growth and change of the plants you have put into the ground. 

July – August: Continue to maintain the garden and watch for the first signs of monarchs who come to visit and – hopefully – lay eggs! 


General Information: 

Monarch Watch
Monarch Watch is a nonprofit education, conservation, and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat, and its spectacular fall migration. 

National Geographic Photo Ark on Monarchs
A scientific and visual overview of the monarch butterfly.

National Wildlife Federation overview of the Monarch
A thorough description of the species.

Monarch Butterfly Xerces Society
This site features many articles about monarchs and ways that everyday citizens can help to save them.

Lesson Planning Resources: 

Monarch Joint Venture

This site is rich with lesson plans for every grade level.

US Forest Service Monarch Butterfly Teacher and Student Resources
Lesson plans and tools for grades K-12 including handouts, networking opportunities, and more.

World Wildlife Fund Teaching Tools about Monarchs
Printables, videos, presentations, and resource guides to prepare you for a deep dive into these insects.

Monarch Conservation Toolbox
A collection of dozens of monarch resources from around the continent.

Monarch Resource Guide
A PDF packet with several lessons and nonfiction text sources from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Inspired Teaching Connection: 

An immersive activity like this includes ALL the Inspired Teaching core elements. Students are learning about something with Purpose (seeing how they can play a role in the lives of monarchs) that also involves Persistence and Action (actually making a milkweed habitat.) This is intense but Joyful work. Any product (a garden) as well as the process provide Wide-ranging Evidence of Student Learning. Children are quick learners and if they get to base their understanding of these creatures on personal observations, this positions them as Experts on the monarch. Studying closely these creatures with whom we shared the planet nurtures a sense of Mutual Respect for living things. Such a rich learning experience is also full of the 4 I’s, as Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity will all be hard at work. 

See our instructional model here.

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