Monarchs are more than butterflies. They are inspiration. Their story inspires people to think about a world bigger than themselves. They sip flower nectar in local fields and yards, then zoom off on a cross-continental trip to spend the winter in Mexico.

Their story inspired me to plant flowers to feed them on their migration in addition to the milkweed they eat as caterpillars. It inspired author Sara Dykman to follow the butterflies on a 10,000-mile-long bicycle trip through three countries to follow their migration. And it inspired a local school to add habitat to their landscape for butterflies and other wildlife.

I reaped the benefits of that decision last summer, when I taught multiple classes at Chautauqua Lake Central School. Their lawn, like most lawns, was barren of life except for grass and a few stray dandelions and some small insects. Near their parking lot, however, was a butterfly garden that was a paradise for insects of all sorts.

The wildlife areas around Chautauqua Lake Central School create habitat for deer and turkeys, but also for this tiny Spring Peeper. Photo by Jeff Tome.

The garden was in full bloom, but I could tell it wasn’t planted for the flowers. It was planted for the leaves. The garden was full of several varieties of milkweed, the leaves of which are the only food for Monarch caterpillars. My groups found Monarch eggs and caterpillars of all sizes scattered throughout the garden. Monarchs and other insects were visiting the flowers.

The children found all kinds of treasures in the garden that day. There were praying mantises, which they claimed were common in the schoolyard, as well as grasshoppers, bees, hummingbird moths, and so much more. The group delighted in taking jars to the flowers and temporarily catching the insects to watch them before letting them go free. It was the perfect learning opportunity.

The garden was the brainchild of local couple Jack and Diane Voelker, according to Chautauqua Lake Superintendent Dr. Josh Lidell. The Voelkers were inspired by a 2014 trip to see the Monarchs where they end their migration in Mexico. They returned determined to do something to help the butterfly as it’s populations slowly disappeared.

They began to visit fourth grade classrooms in the school. Monarchs became a part of the curriculum, starting with a release of a butterfly in the fall and ending with a milkweed planting in the spring. Slowly, the butterfly garden was planted in the front yard, maintained by the Voelkers as Monarch habitat.

From experience, I can tell you that the garden was an outrageous success. Monarchs were all over the garden, as adults, caterpillars, and eggs. The educational value of that space was immense, with different butterflies and eggs and all sorts of insect life. It was the perfect example of how people with a vision can change the world for the better. Monarchs need more habitat and, seeing that need, Jack and Diane Voelker helped create it in a way to teach a new generation about the importance of Monarch habitat in the area.

The schoolyard transformation didn’t stop with one garden near the parking lot. It continued out into the grounds. Large swaths of the school grounds were declared “no mow zones” or, as Dr. Lidell prefers to call them, “wildlife areas.” These areas are mostly hillsides that surround the school.

Chautauqua Lake Central School leaves large areas of land unmowed to increase wildlife habitat.

“Chautauqua Lake is fortunate and blessed to have a dynamic outdoor learning environment that helps our teachers reach different student learning styles. We have seen our students thrive through the interactive hands-on experiences they have received in our wildlife areas,” according to Dr. Lidell.

My groups ventured into the wild areas of the schoolyard after the garden. There were giant grasshoppers, tiny frogs, more praying mantises and so much more life floating in the field grass surrounding the parking lot and playground. I have never found as many praying mantises in one spot as in the wild areas of the Chautauqua Lake Central School yard. I could not help but wonder if one of the older grades raised and released them.

The schoolyard is used for all kinds of things. Field science classes go out to learn more about local wildlife and how biology works. An entire class called Metamorphosis was developed by teacher Adam Gollwitzer to use Monarchs as a way to look at change and bigger issues in the world.

A schoolyard doesn’t have to be a mowed lawn. It can be a wild gateway to learning about the world around us and to follow the journeys of others who have passed through it.

According to teacher Adam Gollwitzer, “Succession is drawn wonderfully in a textbook but much more vibrantly displayed in our no-mow zones that are gradually returning back to forest. Monarch life cycles are beautiful on a bulletin board but way cooler in our pollinator garden. We appreciate that we have this property at Chautauqua Lake to learn like this… so hardly a school day goes by where our classes do not take full advantage.”

Chautauqua Lake Central School has created a wild space where students can see deer, turkeys, and other animals roam past their windows. I have seen bluebirds nesting from the windows of first grade classrooms and startled ducks off of nests on field trips through the schoolyard. Their yard is a yard done right, with gardens, plants for the animals, and wild areas for children to see and be inspired by the world around them.

“Chautauqua Lake’s educational community has been so supportive of our endeavors to continue to enhance our outdoor instructional environments,” said Dr. Lidell.

It was a pleasure to teach in a schoolyard that was more than a yard, it was a habitat that supported local wildlife and a wonderful place to introduce children to the natural world they call home.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.