If you want to get your kids interested in science, sometimes the best way is with experiments they can actually see and participate in. Experiments aren’t just about test tubes, though. Biology offers up some amazing teaching materials. It’s one thing to read about the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle in a textbook. But when your child can actually witness each stage first-hand in his own house, science becomes real, three-dimensional, and–most of all–fun. The following “grow-your-own” critter kits are all tried-and-tested by my own family, and they have brought hours of educational fun to my kids.
Perhaps the most popular kit around, seen in schools across the country, is the Live Butterfly Garden sold by Insect Lore. (Tip: get it through Amazon to save money.) The kit comes with a handy (and very necessary) cylindrical mesh container for housing your caterpillars and, later, butterflies. You can order the live caterpillars separately when it’s convenient for you, and food is included. Like magic, the caterpillars will, one by one, go through each stage of metamorphosis, from tiny caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. It’s so exciting to catch one emerging from its chrysalis! All five of our caterpillars survived and transformed into butterflies. We kept them for a few days before releasing them into our backyard. Make sure you have a camera handy when you do this. One little butterfly didn’t want to leave and perched himself on my son’s shirt for several minutes before finally flying away. Once you have the mesh container, you can order more caterpillars season after season. It’s a fantastic way to show your children the stages of metamorphosis.
Praying mantises are my favorite insect because they seem to have so much personality for a mere bug. They also look like they come from another planet! But the best part about them is that they’re highly beneficial to have in your garden, as they are carnivorous and eat the other insects that munch on your plants. Again through Insect Lore , you can purchase a mesh “pagoda” that comes with a certificate for a praying mantis egg case. The cases are available in winter and spring. The praying mantis kit is, dare I say, downright boring at first. The egg case doesn’t do anything except sit in the mesh container for three to four weeks. But when it hatches, things get really exciting all at once. Because out of that boring egg case will hatch around 100 to 200 baby mantises! You’ll be lucky to catch their birth. Chances are you’ll simply look in the pagoda one day to find miniature mantises everywhere. Not all of the newborns will survive. In fact, I’ve found that the weaker ones start to die quite fast. But the vast majority will last a few days in their home until you’re ready to release them in your garden. The kit instructions say you can keep a mantis or two to live in your pagoda, but only if you’re willing to feed them a fresh supply of live insects. We’ve raised praying mantises twice, and we’ve always released them all a couple of days after hatching, usually onto our rose bushes. The great thing about this type of kit is that, if you’re lucky, you may see your mantises out in the garden for weeks, or perhaps months, to come. They’re the perfect addition to a home garden, and when you release them, they’re fun for your kids to (gently!) hold in their hands.
Sea monkeys have been around forever. And I mean that almost literally. Sea Monkeys are the brand name for a type of brine shrimp, which have lived since the Triassic Period, over 200 million years ago. They started being marketed as “instant pets” about 50 years ago or so. There are a variety of similar kits you can buy, but my family is currently having success with the Sea Monkey’s Hang 10 Mini World , which I purchase for around ten dollars at Toys R Us. It doesn’t require any additional purchases, as it includes small packages of water purifier and food, in addition to the Sea Monkey eggs, which can live for an extended period of time outside of water. All you need is tap water. Our eggs hatched within a few days, and several weeks after starting our Sea Monkey experiment, we still have nearly two dozen critters swimming around the habitat. They’re lively, they grow quickly, and they’re a bit creepy–therefore providing perfect entertainment for my kids. These guys provide a great opportunity to teach your children about prehistoric, yet simple, animals that existed during the time of the dinosaurs. I can’t promise how long they’ll last, but I’ve read online that Sea Monkeys can survive for months, or even years.
The great thing about the above mentioned kits is that they don’t require a lot of time, money, or special set-ups to work. Nature pretty much does most of the work on her own! But they make science accessible, personal and fun for your children. After all, the best and most memorable teaching moments sometimes take place in your own home.