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Caterpillars in the Curriculum

Published: Apr 22, 2014 4 min read

Rachel Jackson

Primary Specialist

National STEM Learning Centre

‘In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf. One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and–pop! - out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.’

Here at the National STEM Centre and National Science Learning Centre we’ve all been watching with great interest Samia ricini silk worms as they grow and develop, pupate and emerge as moths. If you ever get a chance to see them they do look a lot like Eric Carle’s very hungry caterpillar; watching their movement across the leaves and branches, I was tempted to offer them a big juicy apple and a strawberry or two! Across the centre staff have been glued to the Mothcams set up to capture the emerging moths, until finally on Mothcam two we spotted the first moth. I have never seen such a rush of adults running up to the greenhouse!

So far we have had three males emerge and fingers are crossed for a female next in the hope that there will be further eggs and we can continue watching the lifecycle of this rather beautiful moth. Of course we aren’t doing this just because we find it interesting, though that in itself speaks volumes, it is to show teachers another way of bringing science to life, whilst making many curriculum links.

So if you have yet to have caterpillars in the classroom, now is the time to start.
For a number of years in class we have been observing caterpillars of the Painted Lady butterfly growing and developing, spinning their cocoons, pupating then emerging as butterflies. Once emerged the butterflies can be observed for a while and the children enjoyed feeding them sugar water dropped onto flowers. It is always fun going en masse into the playground or local wildlife area to release them, though you have to watch out for any nearby birds unless you want to see a food chain in action!

The activities which can be carried out relating to this project are many and varied depending on the age and ability of your class and it has always amazed me which children are most captivated by the caterpillars. I always remember one boy in particular, who had difficulties focusing in class and even sitting still, who was fully engaged and motivated, asking to measure the caterpillars daily and record this in a chart. Other children spent time independently researching the caterpillars and butterflies, finding out about their food preferences, habitat, and stages of their life. The inclusive nature of this kind of activity can only add to the learning experience of the whole class and teachers. I recall one year, a colleague running excitedly into my classroom as her butterflies were emerging earlier than mine. Her classroom was much warmer which in itself led to another interesting discussion.

Over the years we’ve carried out many activities in class linked to the butterfly project including:

  • Creating models of butterflies or caterpillars, either simple symmetrical prints or more elaborate Papier Mache/Modroc and wire models.
  • Designing and making pop up books to explain life cycles and habitats of different animals
  • Measuring caterpillars, creating bar charts to show growth of individual caterpillars or plotting the growth of an individual or the course of its caterpillar stage
  • Exploring animals’ movement in dance or playing games which explore food chains

The interest that may be sparked across the primary curriculum is so wide it would be a shame not to include caterpillars in the curriculum and if you are mini-beast inclined then why stop at caterpillars, try stick insects, ladybirds, worms or even ants….

If you have any experiences of minibeast projects in class or outdoors then please share them with others in our primary community, where you can post comments, share ideas and upload any helpful resources. I’ve pulled together a list of resources to help you get started with your own caterpillar collection for the primary curriculum. It comes complete with lesson ideas and activities and also some ideas for working with SEN children in science.

I would also love to see and read your opinions and ratings on the resources and ideas I've chosen. Did they work for you? Did you improve on them? Were any confusing or unclear? Your opinions matter as other teachers value the opinions of their peers and are more likely to use a highly rated resource.