Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Butterfly Camp transforms children into experts

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Every year thousands of pupating caterpillars arrive at Brookside Gardens in their chrysalis stage ready to emerge and become the beautiful flying insects people come to the gardens to see.

If all that sounds like information in another language, just ask the children from Brookside’s Butterfly Camp last week what it means.

‘‘I learned what chrysalis are and I like to see them,” said Cara Dec, 9, of Rockville, as she watched newly arrived chrysalis being unwrapped and hung on a board where they would stay to complete the metamorphosis into butterflies.

The scientific language explaining the lifecycle of butterflies is just one of the many things the nine campers learned.

Lynn Richard, horticulturist in charge of children’s programs at Brookside Gardens, decided to start the butterfly camp for 7- to 10- year-olds last year to coincide with the gardens’ annual ‘‘Wings of Fancy” butterfly exhibit.

The camp is a daily mix of scientific learning, hands-on projects and visiting the butterfly house to watch the hundreds of butterflies fluttering gracefully from plant to plant searching for the perfect nectar.

‘‘What I like best is all the different kinds of butterflies you can look at,” said Dara Schweitzer, 8, of Bethesda as the group moved slowly along the winding paths of the butterfly house.

It was important to move slowly — butterflies were everywhere. They landed on the children’s heads and shoulders and were particularly attracted to Richard’s bright green shirt.

By the second day of camp the children were able to identify some of the butterflies.

‘‘There’s a Monarch, an Orange Bard, a Silver-spotted Skipper,” the children would say as the various species fluttered by.

‘‘This is taking a closer look at what is happening in nature, hopefully, they will gain a greater appreciation of what is going on around them,” Richard said about the camp, which met every morning for one week.

In addition to learning the differences between butterflies and moths, campers learned about their habitats, life cycles and about host and nectaring plants.

‘‘A female will only lay its eggs on a specific plant, the one the caterpillar will eat — that is a host plant,” Richard explained.

From their humble beginning as caterpillars until they become graceful butterflies, there are a number of stages of development. Campers did not take long to learn words such as chrysalis, pupa and metamorphosis and to understand their applications to the life stages of butterflies.

‘‘[Metamorphosis is] when something changes into another thing, like when a caterpillar changes into a chrysalis, then a chrysalis turns into a butterfly,” said Mitchell Houldsworth, 8, of Silver Spring, using most of the day’s vocabulary words.

Richard mixes her teaching methods during each day’s lesson.

‘‘They’re not picking up everything I’m saying,” she said. ‘‘You can only learn so much in the classroom so it is nice to have the exhibit where they can see in action what we talked about.”

Richard also believes in active participation so the campers make a lesson-related craft each day to take home.

On the day they learned about butterfly habitats they created container gardens for attracting butterflies at home; another day they decorated emergence boxes and were given Monarch butterfly chrysalises and milkweed plants to take home.

Since Monarchs are native to this area the children will be able to release their butterflies when they are ready to fly.

Each child was also given The Really Big Butterfly Coloring Book, with pictures to color and butterfly facts.

Each child will also take home new knowledge of butterflies and their life cycle, plants that attract them and all that new scientific vocabulary.

‘‘What I liked best was learning and seeing lots of new things and cool stuff,” Dara said. ‘‘It’s really exciting.”