Butterfly 1: Observing the Life Cycle of a Butterfly

What You Need


  • 11" x 17" construction paper
  • Paint
Butterfly 1: Observing the Life Cycle of a Butterfly


To observe and identify the characteristics of the life cycle of a butterfly.


This lesson is the first of two lessons that focus on butterflies and their habitats.

In Butterfly 1: Observing the Life Cycle of a Butterfly, students observe one organism over time and compare its early development (caterpillar) to its later development (butterfly). A fundamental observation skill in science is comparing and contrasting. Students will also compare actual characteristics of a butterfly with a fictional representation of a butterfly.

Through a series of activities, students will study the life cycle of a butterfly while noting its development as it metamorphoses from a caterpillar to a butterfly. During this time, students will learn about the attributes of a butterfly through both observation and comparing and contrasting.

In this lesson, students will keep a "butterfly journal" of observations and activities. Depending upon the individual skill level, students can use words, pictures, or illustrations to record their observations. The American Museum of Natural History offers an online sample field journal page made specifically for butterfly watching that can be printed out and bound at the end of this lesson. 

In Butterfly 2: A Butterfly's Home, students design their own butterfly gardens to demonstrate which environmental characteristics make up a favorable butterfly habitat. You have the option of planting a student-created "butterfly garden," which affords students an opportunity to interact with butterflies in their natural environment.

Planning Ahead

Prior to beginning this lesson, you will need to be prepared with a "Butterfly Kit" which can be purchased through a variety of businesses, including The Earth's Birthday Butterfly Activity Kit. Your choices for a kit may vary depending upon your classroom needs, but the following activity can be used with any kit or classroom arrangement, ranging from one butterfly for the class to observe to one butterfly for each student. Make sure that your kit starts with "eggs" and not caterpillars, pupa or butterflies.

You will need a copy of the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Time: Approximately 30 minutes with 30 days of observation


Show children the Science NetLinks slide show titled What's Happening Here? This online slide show depicts the life cycle of a butterfly. This booklet is intended to spark discussion. It can be revisited at the end of the lesson to see how student responses have changed.


To begin the lesson, tell students that they will learn about how the butterfly changes throughout its life.

Begin the lesson by saying to students: "Let's describe a caterpillar." Use the caterpillar image from the Life Cycle of a Butterfly teacher sheet to help stimulate conversation. This activity can be done with the whole class as a brainstorming session with you recording responses on a large chart while students record the responses on their individual sheets. Or, students can work in small groups and come up with ideas that they add to a group chart and share with the class. It is okay to accept all answers. Later, students will return to the responses on the chart and develop criteria to determine which of the statements represent facts that they observed during their own observations of a butterfly's life cycle.

Life Cycle of a Butterfly
Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the class. As soon as the story is finished, look back through the book and ask children to think about how the caterpillar changes in the story.

Explain that butterflies go through a growing process during which their appearance changes drastically. Ask them to list (or draw) on their Life Cycle of a Butterfly student sheet the ways in which the "very hungry caterpillar" changed during the course of the story. Encourage them to use these terms:

  • egg
  • larva or caterpillar
  • pupa, chrysalis, or cocoon
  • adult butterfly

Tell students that they will observe the development of a butterfly first-hand. Following the directions included in the butterfly kit, students will make daily observations of the development of the butterflies in their "field journal," paying careful attention to the butterfly's:

  • size
  • color
  • shape
  • activity
  • diet

Again, observations can consist of words, pictures, or illustrations.


Bind the students' journal pages into a "journals". Students can create "butterfly shaped" covers by taking 11 x 17-inch construction paper, folding it over, and cutting an outline of a butterfly's wing. They can then add spots of paint to one of the wings, and then fold over the other wing so that the paint is symmetrical on both sides. The bound journal pages can then be inserted "into" the butterfly. (Teacher note: You may wish to wait until you have completed related lessons including A Butterfly's Home before binding the books.)

Draw a diagram of the life cycle of the butterfly. Alternative activities based on a student's learning style are:

  • Act out the life cycle of a butterfly
  • Place life-cycle cards in order using Butterfly Life Cycle from the Earth's Birthday Project website
  • Create a song about the life cycle of a butterfly to a familiar tune


For a follow-up lesson on butterflies and how they adapt to their environments, go to the Science NetLinks lesson entitled Butterfly 2: A Butterfly's Home.

The Earth's Birthday Butterfly Activity Kit is part of the Earth's Birthday Butterfly Program, an established, annual event. Each spring, classrooms across the country throw a birthday party for the Earth, culminating in the release of butterflies - butterflies that students raise from caterpillars right in their own classrooms. From the website, you can download a 48-page activity guide that contains a wealth of engaging ideas. Also, you can order Earth's Birthday Project Caterpillars, which are delivered each year, from March to July.

You may choose to follow up with the Magic School Bus Extension Activity: Circle of Life. In this activity, students compare their own development from an infant to that of a butterfly.

For Spanish-speaking ESL students, the Magic School Bus also has an activity called A Butterfly Grows Up in which the students create mini-books about the life cycle of the butterfly.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

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