Citizen Scientists Take Flight: Kindergarteners nurture Lower School butterfly garden to help save the monarchs

In a place where passion, discovery and teamwork help young students spread their wings and fly off to new opportunities, it comes as no surprise that helping butterflies do the same has become a labor of love in the Lower School. And at a time when one of the most recognizable and beloved species — the monarch butterfly — is endangered, even our youngest Ravens are jumping in to help them survive and thrive.

With the help of volunteers from the Parents’ Association, who have added 20 new plantings to help attract and sustain several species of butterflies, the Lower School butterfly garden has been certified as a Monarch Waystation, making a difference for the fragile insects while providing a boon for STEM+ instruction in the lower grades. 

The project has allowed kindergarteners to become citizen scientists, monitoring the plants in the garden for eggs and even witnessing a monarch butterfly laying eggs on the milkweed. They gather up leaf cuttings containing eggs, bring them inside to care for them, and make observations daily as the caterpillars grow and change. Students got to watch a monarch butterfly eclose, or emerge from its chrysalis.

“I like learning about monarchs,” kindergartener Benjamin Pacca said. “We’re trying to help them because they’re almost extinct like the dinosaurs.”

When the butterflies are ready, students hold a release party for them. So far this year, 14 monarchs have been raised, tagged and released. Monarchs from Ravenscroft will travel 2,165 miles to their overwintering site in Mexico and then will return in the spring to lay eggs.

The butterfly garden has also successfully produced 16 black swallowtail butterflies this year. As Ausbon said, “All butterflies are welcome in our garden! There is beauty in diversity.”

Getting certified as a Monarch Waystation has meant meeting some requirements, such as including a particular number of nectar plants and host plants across a certain square footage of land. As species only lay their eggs on specific plants (monarchs require milkweed, for example), new plants had to be brought in, and the importance of upkeep has brought volunteers to the garden for “Weeding Wednesdays.”

“Ravenscroft’s butterfly garden continues to endure 25 years after its creation with new butterfly and caterpillar activity due to plant rejuvenation and restoration thanks to many parent volunteers,” said parent Erica Carter, who spearheaded the PA’s efforts. “With the new Monarch Waystation certification, the PA hopes to continue to collaborate with the school to create an outdoor classroom for all students.”

This fall, students learned how to harvest the milkweed seed pods and separate the seeds from the fluff. They’ll plant them in “milk gallon jug greenhouses” this winter.

“Wildlife officials say the only way to save the monarch butterfly is for people everywhere to plant and grow milkweed. We hope to have enough after this project to let people take them and plant them wherever they can,”Ausbon said. “We’re excited to take this on as a grade-level project.”

All four kindergarten classes also participated in the global Symbolic Migration Project, joining over 60,000 other students from Canada to Mexico.

“We are making connections, connecting people and crossing borders to help save the endangered monarch butterfly while promoting education about them, which is exactly what Lead From Here is all about,” Ausbon concluded. “We are changing our world, one butterfly at a time.”

If you'd like to help our kindergarteners save the monarch, contact Sherri Ausbon for more information.