What should you do if you’re a compassionate educator who wants to teach your students about animals’ life cycles, spark their wonder, engage them in a unit of study, and foster their empathy for animals? TeachKind is here to help!
Insects are animals, and no animal should be used as a classroom tool. Yet every spring, when teachers embark upon lessons on the popular topic of life cycles, well-meaning educators may 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
Consideration should be given to whether the local ecosystem can properly sustain butterflies. When these animals are raised in the classroom and then released, they may not be able to survive because of a lack of food or other variables in that particular habitat. 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, & 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, & Spyreas, 2017). Rather than focusing on a temporary project in the classroom, teachers should show students the importance of nurturing the natural environment to help the declining butterfly population. This real-world lesson could foster a sense of responsibility in children and encourage them to help improve things for our planet.
Euthanasia in the Classroom
Teachers need to consider carefully what happens to the animals once the life-cycle lessons are complete. Companies that produce butterfly kits, such as FOSS, consider the lives of the animals useless after they’ve been used by students. FOSS actually recommends killing animals, such as snails, by “collecting them in a bag and placing them in the freezer.” Once they’ve been killed, the company says that they are to be disposed of “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 dangerous message that it’s OK to bully other living beings simply because they’re different and vulnerable.
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 milkweeds 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. Encourage them to replace the word “it” with “he” or “she,” because animals are individuals, not things.
- Order and use free resources, such as animations, videos taken in nature, and coloring sheets.
- Use plastic replicas of animals, made by companies like Scholastic, which can serve as a tactile representation of metamorphosis. They allow students to see the development of butterflies, ants, and frogs up close and personal, without ever harming a live insect or other animal.
- 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 participate in the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly in real time. In the fall, students in the U.S. and Canada create paper monarch butterflies. These symbolic “ambassador” butterflies 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 original classrooms. The students gain an appreciation for and understanding of the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly and the sanctuaries that protect and nurture these animals in the off-season.
By incorporating these compassionate tools into your science lessons, you’ll be teaching students that they can study insects and other animals while allowing them to remain in their natural habitat.
Schultz, C. B., Brown, L. M., Pelton, E., & 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., & 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
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