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Free Lesson Plan -- Caterpillar Lesson Plan

Updated on July 23, 2017
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I am a writer, teacher, and parent. I have degrees in American history and human development, but insects are my true passion!

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A Free Caterpillar Lesson Plan for Home or School

This caterpillar lesson plan is a free elementary classroom work in the natural sciences. It's designed for younger learners in accordance with the California State Common Core Reading Standards for Informational Text (K-5). As such it focuses on "Key Ideas and Details" and "Integration of Knowledge and Ideas." Common Core source material, including complete CA Common Core Standards, can be found here.

I'm a teacher with 15-plus years in the classroom, and also a dedicated naturalist who has worked on scientific studies with the Smithsonian Institution. You can trust this lesson plan to be accurate and well-researched. You can also trust it to be entertaining and engaging, because like any experienced teacher I understand that simply presenting the material to young people is not enough. We need to invite our students to get involved in their own learning. An insect that they can hold in their hand means more to a child than a picture of one they can see in a book, or online.

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Goals of this Lesson Plan

As a teacher, I always begin with goals: what do I want my students to learn? The goals of this caterpillar lesson plan are as follows:

  • To understand the life-cycle of butterflies and moths
  • To learn new vocabulary about insects and caterpillars
  • To use nature in creative writing and artwork
  • To be able to identify some common caterpillars and butterflies
  • To have a chance to raise caterpillars and watch them change into butterflies

A Note to the Teacher:

Throughout this lesson I assume that you, the teacher, have a basic grounding in the study of nature. If you need clarification of some terms or concepts, or if you could use more information, I also provide links to my sources as we go along. I do my best to give you the same things I would want it were me giving the lesson.

What Is a Caterpillar?

A caterpillar is one of the four stages that comprise the life cycle of butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera). The insect begins life as an egg, laid by an adult female on the food plant of choice. The tiny caterpillar (larva) hatches out and begins feeding on the leaves of the food plant. Most Lepidoptera larvae stay on the food plant as they grow, shedding their skin 4 or 5 times before reaching maturity.

The role of the caterpillar form is to store fat and energy. When it is full-grown, the caterpillar enters into the third stage of development: the pupa. The pupa does not move around. Inside its skin the caterpillar's organs are rearranging into the wings and long legs of the adult butterfly or moth. A butterfly pupa typically hangs from the food plant, while moth pupae are often surrounded by a protective layer of silk called a cocoon.

It may take the better part of a year for the adult to hatch from the pupa. When it does, the insect cannot fly until the wings expand. This takes about an hour, after which the adult can fly, find a mate, and begin the four-stage cycle all over again by laying an egg on the correct food plant.

What Can We Do With Caterpillars In Our Classroom?

Here's a really cool project that you can do in the classroom or at home. It's affordable and self-contained, and requires very little upkeep. You will raise a brood of actual butterfly caterpillars, watching them feed, charting their growth, with many opportunities for lessons and activities along the way. Your caterpillars will pupate, and then hatch into gorgeous butterflies. The species is common worldwide, so it's perfectly okay to release them into the wild -- another great moment for your classroom.

Live Butterfly Kit: SHIPPED WITH 5 Painted Lady Caterpillars Now-Hanging Cage
Live Butterfly Kit: SHIPPED WITH 5 Painted Lady Caterpillars Now-Hanging Cage

This is an excellent and easy way to raise caterpillars in a classroom or home. I have used this kit and the food and instructions for care are all provided for with this kit.

 

Caterpillar Vocabulary Lesson

Here's a list of words and terms that teachers may use when generating quizzes for their students. Answer key follows.

Here are some basic vocabulary words that are essential for understanding the science behind caterpillars. This lesson is definitely for the older students (ages 9 and up). Teachers may put these words on a screen or hand them out; students should be able to define them, and/or use them in a sentence.

molt

larva

pupa

Lepidoptera

food plant

metamorphosis

mandibles

prolegs

sphericles

molt -- the act of shedding skin; also refers to stages between skin shedding ("second molt," etc)

larva -- scientific term for a caterpillar

pupa -- scientific term for a chrysalis or cocoon

Lepidoptera -- the Order, or scientific group, that includes butterflies and moths

food plant -- the plant on which the caterpillar feeds

metamorphosis -- the change from one stage to another, e.g. from caterpillar to pupa

mandibles -- the mouthparts of an insect

prolegs -- the fleshy, "gripping" legs on the last sections of a caterpillar

sphericles -- the breathing holes that line the sides of caterpillars and other insects

Caterpillar Science Projects

This is a good site with lots of ideas for making science projects. It's definitely geared more toward the older students, but even teachers of young ones may find cool projects here that can be adapted for younger learners.

Monarch Butterfly Fact Sheet

Here's an excellent, printable (.pdf file) fact sheet all about the most famous, and some say the most beautiful, butterfly in North America. This beautiful site has a FREE PDF FILE that you can use for your lessons. It also has advice on how to plant milkweed, which makes an excellent hands-on learning adventure for kids of virtually any age.

Caterpillar Matherpillar, Part 1

A cute math work for the little ones

I like this work -- it's really sweet and uses caterpillars to help little ones learn number sense. The site has some cool ideas for teachers and home-schoolers looking for ways to grab the attention of their students. The butterfly count book is a nice idea, and putting it together is educational in itself.

Butterfly Life Cycle Lessons

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This is a good, no-nonsense site with excellent science lessons. ScienceNetLinks is a godsend for those of us teaching the natural sciences to young people in the upper-elementary/middle school range. This excellent site has a complete and detailed lesson plan for energetic teachers ready to introduce their older students to the science behind the fuzzy caterpillars and fluttering butterflies that they see in picture books.

Caterpillar Art Project

This is a great little art project for the littler learners. It's a nice way to communicate to students the idea tat a caterpillar is made up of several segments that work together when the insect moves. Plus, little ones can look up their favorite caterpillars and use them as a model for their own creations. Learning to identify their species, and maybe the species' scientific name, is an added skill that matches well with science curriculum goals.

A Great Caterpillar Game for Older Students

I like this game for students in the upper elementary grades.

Watch This Caterpillar As It Feeds - A tomato hornworm (Family Sphingidae) devours a tomato leaf

Notice how the insect's mandibles -- jaws -- work from side to side as it consumes the leaf from the edge.

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Butterfly or Moth?

How to tell them apart

One of the first things students want to know is how to tell butterflies from moths. While there are no absolute characteristics that an amateur entomologist would find useful, there are several things that will serve to separate butterflies from moths. Here are a few of them:

  • butterflies fly during the day; moths fly at night
  • butterflies do not spin cocoons
  • moth caterpillars are more often "furry"
  • moths are more often "hairy" and have heavier wings
  • moths often have feathery antennae; butterflies usually have clubs on the tips
  • moths are much more common, but not always seen due to their nocturnal habits

Caterpillar Books and Reading Sources

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There is, of course, a very wide range of books and sources about Caterpillars, from scholarly journals to picture books for toddlers. The best are authoritative and accurate, with little in the way off sugar-coating or fairy tales. As interesting and unique as caterpillars are, they are still just a part of the huge and intricate web of life in any given environment. Art projects aside, it's always best to strive for accurate imaging and descriptions. Not all concepts are perfect for every reader, it's always important to choose your texts carefully.

Some Great Caterpillar Poems

These can be a nice introduction for a classroom writing work

Here's a sweet site with some caterpillar poems -- you may decide to use them as examples to prompt your own students in a creative writing exercise. I've found that my students respond quicker, and learn faster, when they can begin with examples of work done by other students. The only catch -- the work samples need to be very close to the age and abilities of my students. Otherwise, either boredom or frustration can set in.

Time Lapse Video of a Butterfly Hatching

A Cool Clay Caterpillar Art Project Tutorial

Egg-Carton Caterpillar Art Project

Another sweet caterpillar art project -- the ever-popular egg-carton caterpillar. As in the "Bouncy-pillar," this beloved art project offers students a chance to create a "real" caterpillar based on the actual markings of species found in the area. Instructions for this art project can be found right here at a good site with clever ideas for art projects.

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