Ditch Cruel Butterfly Kits for Humane Life-Cycle Lessons

What should you do if you’re a compassionate educator who wants to incorporate life-cycle lessons into your curriculum, spark your students’ wonder and engagement, and help foster their empathy for animals? Ditch the butterfly kits in favor of humane teaching methods!

Insects are animals, and no animal should be used as a classroom tool. Yet every spring, when teachers embark upon popular life-cycle lessons, well-meaning educators order life-cycle kits that use live animals, such as butterflies or frogs, without knowing that they suffer in these projects..

Why Butterfly Kits Are Disruptive to the Environment and the Classroom

They Don’t Provide the Ecosystem That Butterflies Need

Once the lessons are finished and the butterflies trapped in these kits are released, they may be unable to survive due to a lack of food or other environmental variables. For example, the Western monarch butterfly is facing a “high risk of extinction: [about] 50–75% within 20 years and [about] 65–85% within 50 years” (Schultz, Brown, Pelton, and Crone, 2017). It’s suspected that this decline is linked to a scarcity of milkweed plants, which monarch butterflies need in order to reproduce—in fact, in the Midwest, there has been a “68% loss of milkweed available for monarchs across the region” (Zaya, Pearse, and Spyreas, 2017). Rather than focusing on a temporary project in the classroom, teachers should show students the importance of nurturing the natural environment in order to help the declining butterfly population. This real-world lesson could foster a sense of responsibility in children and encourage them to help take care of the Earth and animals.

Animals Aren’t Disposable

What happens to the animals after the life-cycle lessons are complete? Companies that produce butterfly kits, such as FOSS, consider them useless at that point. FOSS actually recommends killing animals, such as snails, by “collecting them in a bag and placing them in the freezer” and then disposing of them “in the trash.”

Animals are individuals, not teaching tools. Allowing students to manipulate the lives of insects and other animals in the classroom sends the harmful message that it’s OK to bully other sentient beings simply because they’re vulnerable and different from us.

Cute brown and white dog with butterfly on nose

Here are some modern, humane ways to teach about life cycles:

  • Plant a butterfly garden in your school’s courtyard or on its playground and include milkweed to attract monarch butterflies native to your area. Make sure to tell your students that they should observe the butterflies from a distance and never catch or trap them. This is an effective activity because “milkweed restoration remains one immediately actionable strategy to combat monarch loss” (Zaya et al., 2017).
  • Teach your students a fun and memorable song about the four phases of a butterfly’s life.
  • Order and use free resources, such as animations, videos taken in nature, and coloring sheets.
  • Use plastic replicas of animals, which can serve as a tactile representation of metamorphosis. They allow students to see the development of butterflies, ants, and frogs up close without ever harming them.
  • Encourage students to participate in the annual Symbolic Migration program offered by Journey North, which strives to “understand, preserve, and protect migratory species.” The project allows students across North America to connect with the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies in real time. In the fall, students in the U.S. and Canada create paper monarch butterflies. These symbolic “ambassadors” are then sent to students in Mexico who live near a butterfly sanctuary. They “protect” the symbolic animals until the spring, when monarch butterflies return home. The paper creations are then sent back to the U.S. classrooms. The students gain an appreciation for and understanding of the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies and the sanctuaries that protect and nurture them.

By incorporating these compassionate tools into your science lessons, you’ll be teaching students that they can study insects and other animals without removing them from their natural habitats.


Schultz, C. B., Brown, L. M., Pelton, E., and Crone, E. E. (2017). Citizen science monitoring demonstrates dramatic declines of monarch butterflies in western North America. Biological Conservation, 214, 343–346. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.08.019

Zaya, D. N., Pearse, I. S., and Spyreas, G. (2017). Long-term trends in Midwestern milkweed abundances and their relevance to monarch butterfly declines. BioScience, 67(4), 343–356. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/10.1093/biosci/biw186


Like these ideas? Please share them to inspire other teachers to incorporate compassion for animals into their science lessons.

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