Introduction: The Butterfly Project

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I directed an art project at our son Benjamin's preschool class today.  I wanted it to be open ended and collaborative, with as little structure as possible.

I'm currently trying to convince the principal of the adjoining elementary school to try this project in all the classrooms there, so I wrote up instructions for running the project in case he allows it.

Educational Objectives:

By participating in the Butterfly Project, students will have opportunity to define an object using their own words and methods, express themselves through a medium of their choice, cooperate with peers, and beautify their environment.

Ideally, this project will provide:

a brief interlude for the teachers and students - breaks have been shown to refresh and energize, leading to better performance
a positive experience with a collaborative group activity, hopefully to help balance out possible future bad experiences with "group projects"
a safe (albeit small) space where students can exercise their divinely appointed individuality and agency in order to create according to their own definitions and limitations, as opposed to outside imposed standards

It will also encourage:

tolerance of diversity - butterflies come in many different colors and shapes; all are lovely, and art is a medium that allows many "right" answers
creativity through self expression
critical thinking through defining and demonstrating their own vision of a butterfly
a healthy and positive connection with peers by cooperating in placement of butterflies on the poster and installing the poster in the classroom or elsewhere in the school
a stronger sense of community involvement through actively improving their surroundings in a way that benefits all who can see their art


a large piece of butcher paper
colored pencils
white glue
glue sticks
clear tape
construction paper
white paper
tissue paper, if possible
pipe cleaners
some pre-cut but unattached butterfly wings for younger students


A non teacher (either a parent or another volunteer, possibly an art student from a local university) will draw on the paper somewhere in the classroom where children can see if they choose, but not in the way of the teacher.  The lesson plan for that day will ideally allow space for the students to be distracted if they'd rather watch the artist than sit in their seats.

The artist should be a non teacher in order to provide a new adult to interact with, one who hasn't been in the role of educating them.  This lack of teacher-student pre-established relationship should allow for greater expression from the students.  Ideally, students won't be seeking approval or considering grades while interacting with the artist.  That's why the artist mustn't be an authority figure.  This should also provide students more experience interacting with an adult from the community.  If they're treated as equals by an adult who cares about them but has no authority over them, they can more easily feel like a valued and contributing member of society, equal to others regardless of age.  Being valued and heard tends to encourage children to act with greater care and maturity.

As students wander over to the artist and ask questions, the artist will explain that he or she is making a piece of art for the classroom.  After some time, the artist will explain that he or she wants the picture to have lots of butterflies and ask any students nearby if they would help make butterflies for the picture.  The artist can ask younger students what a butterfly is and what one looks like.  The artist should take care to listen and ask students, rather than instructing or guiding them.  "How do you make a butterfly?" is a great question to ask the participating students of any age.  "Could you show me?" is another question the artist should ask many students.

If students ask where they should put the butterflies or what they should make them out of, the artist should show the assorted art supplies near the poster.  The artist should then ask, "What do you think they should be made out of?"

Care should be taken to keep the project very low key and open ended.  No student should be coerced, forced, or told to go participate.  The students who participate are volunteers in beautifying their classroom, and this experience isn't nearly as beneficial if not voluntary.

Students who don't choose to participate should be allowed to engage in any safe, non destructive activities they choose that aren't too loud. If some students choose not to participate and are being disruptive during the activity, the artist or teacher should ask them why and what they'd rather be doing, paying attention to the answer.  Sudden freedom can be confusing to some children and cause unexpected behavior at first; self mastery should be encouraged during this activity, rather than automatic obedience.

The time frame for the activity should be at least two hours from the time the artist starts drawing until the poster is attached to the wall.  If a teacher has extra time in the planned class activities and some students are still engaged in making butterflies, extra time should be allowed.

Students benefit from an occasional break from strict adherence to time limits and school bells.


Teachers should thank the students who participated in making a lovely piece of art for the classroom.  Teachers should try to distract away from comparisons students may make about butterflies.  It might happen naturally as kids look at the art and discuss it, but listing some as better or prettier than others can hurt feelings and discourage healthy, creative expression in the future.