Powerful Pollinators: Understanding the Prairie Ecosystem


Students will learn about prairies, understand the importance of pollinators, and play a game about the life cycle of Regal Fritillary butterflies.


  • Students will learn what a prairie is and why they are important to the ecosystem of the North American continent.
  • Students will be able to name the benefits of and threats to prairies.
  • Students will be able to identify pollinators and understand their importance to prairies.
  • Students will play a game to learn about the Regal Fritillary butterfly life cycle.

Subject Area Connections

  • History & Government


  • 3rd
  • 4th
  • 5th

Class Time

  • Sessions: Four
  • Session Length: 30-45 minutes
  • Total Time: 151-500 minutes


Background Knowledge

  • Students will have a basic knowledge of the following:
  • Ecosystem
  • Habitat
  • Species
  • Kansas
  • Climate
  • Ecosystem
  • Fire
  • Pollen
  • Life cycle
  • Butterfly
  • Caterpillar

Lesson Steps

Session One

Essential Questions: What is a prairie? Where are prairies located? What are some characteristics of prairies? What are the different types of prairies?

  1. Show students the quarter design, including the reverse or tails side, found on the U.S. Mint's website: https://www.usmint.gov/coins/coin-medal-programs/america-the-beautiful-quarters/tallgrass-prairie-national-preserve
  2. Explain that as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters® Program, the U.S. Mint features national parks and historical sites on quarters that are specific to a state, territory, or district. In 2020, the Kansas quarter highlights the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The park is located in the Flint Hills of Kansas and spreads across nearly 11,000 acres or 17 square miles.
  3. Ask students to guess which type of plant is featured on the coin. Explain that it is Bluestem and Indian grasses. Many grasses that grow together with few trees are known as prairies. They play a very important part in the ecosystem of North America. In many other places around the world, there are grasslands and prairies but they are sometimes called by different names. Explain that at one time, prairies covered a large area of the middle of North America, stretching from Canada to Mexico. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve holds some of the largest remaining prairies in the United States.
  4. Explain to students that they are going to learn all about prairies, the services they provide, and the plants and animals that live there.
  5. Show students additional pictures of prairies from the NPS website for Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: https://www.nps.gov/tapr/index.html); Prairie Ecosystem: https://www.nps.gov/tapr/learn/nature/a-complex-prairie-ecosystem.htm ); or other online sources. Point out interesting characteristics about prairies to help guide students' thinking (i.e., kinds of plants visible, what type of climate prairies grows in, etc.).
  6. As a warmup activity, ask students to think about what comes to mind when they hear the word "prairie."
    • If teaching in person, have students write their answers in the first box of the Prairie Graphic Organizer worksheet.
    • If teaching remotely, have students create their own graphic organizer in a journal or notebook using the Prairie Graphic Organizer worksheet as a guide.
  7. Ask the students to share what they wrote or drew./xlink/?xlink=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_xI As a class, complete the "What we already know about prairies" section of the graphic organizer.
  8. Show the video, "Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie (excerpt)": youtube.com/watch?v=G_xI7xJXC7A
  9. Ask students to share what they learned about prairies.
  10. Explain that prairies play an important role in the ecosystem of North America. Ask students to review the sections remaining in their Prairie Graphic Organizer. Tell students that the class will fill those sections in after you provide more information about prairies:
    • Prairies are stretches of flat grassland with moderate temperatures and rainfall with very few trees.
    • While most commonly thought of as the grasslands in North America, prairies exist all over the world, including the Pampa of South America, the Plains of Eastern Europe, and the Black Earth Belt of Russia.
    • Prairies contain lots of plants and animals but this is influenced by the amount of rainfall (total amount of rain water) in a given year. There are 3 types of prairies: tall, mixed, and short-grass. In Kansas, all three types of prairie exist today.
    • There are 4 main prairie grass species: Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass. Two of these grasses (Bluestem and Indiangrass) are visible on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve quarter they looked at earlier.
    • Prairies provide a habitat for pollinators (insects or birds that help plants reproduce by moving pollen from plant to plant), which are important for the growth of plants we use for in the food chain, like wheat to make bread or grains for cows and buffalo to graze. Examples of pollinators include bees and butterflies.
    • There are three things prairies need in order to stay healthy: steady climate and rainfall, fire, and grazing. The climate and rainfall help make sure the grasses have enough nutrients to grow. But what about the fire?
    • When the prairie plants grow, their leaves fall off and die. As time passes, the dead leaves build up to create a layer on top of the ground. This layer makes it hard for new plants to grow because the sun is blocked. The fire helps to remove the dead undergrowth so new grass can grow.
    • These fires occur naturally and have been part of the prairie life cycle since before human existence. Today, caretakers of the prairies sometimes set fires to keep the prairies healthy. They monitor these fires to make sure they stay within a certain area and do not spread. These kinds of fires are called controlled burns.
    • American Indian peoples used very small fires for hundreds of years for the same reasons we use them today.
    • Though the grasses can be different heights, all grass roots are tall! But how can that be? The roots of all grasses are extra-long, most of the grass plant isn't what we see – it's below the soil! Roots in prairie grasses can grow up from 8 to 14 feet high. In fact, grasses have so many roots that we refer to them as root systems (network of roots in the soil). These roots absorb rain water and are not impacted by drought. The roots also help keep the soil in place.
    • The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is located at the base of the Flint Hills, which helped keep the prairies the way they are today. Because of the rocky Flint Hills, the soil under the Prairie Preserve could not be turned into farmland. But with all the grass there, it was perfect for grazing (when animals eat grass or other plants for food).
    • Grazing triggers biological activity in the area and the grazing animals compact the soil with their hooves, making space for new seeds to grow there. Examples of grazing animals include buffalo and cows.
    • The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is unique because only about 4% remains of the tallgrass prairie in the United States. Most of the remaining prairie is in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Midwestern United States.
    • Prairies were greatly impacted by Westward Expansion in the mid-1800s. As more people moved west, the prairie lands were turned into settlements and farms. As the population of our country grew, we needed more space for people to live and more farms to feed our growing country. With new technological advances, land was needed to build bigger cities, factories, and other industrial buildings.
    • When people packed up their belongings to travel westward, they could only bring items they needed because they usually traveled by wagon. They had limited space and typically made most of their goods.
    • Many people traveled with homemade quilts. These blankets became part of family histories and quilt patterns were often passed down by women to their daughters.
    • Westward expansion also impacted the American Indians, who had made their home on the prairies for generations. American Indian peoples lived in the Great Plains area, including the Wichita, Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee tribes. The tribes moved about the entire region to hunt and gather food.
    • However, after the period of Westward expansion, many of the tribes were moved into Oklahoma and were unable to travel throughout the prairies as they once did.
    • It is important to protect the prairies we have today because of the plants and animals that live in the prairie. The prairie also helps us have clean air to breathe, food to eat, clean water, and even impacts our weather.
    • Prairies provide many benefits:
      • Provide a habitat for several species of butterflies, including the Monarch and Regal Fritillary, and other animals that cannot live anywhere else
      • Provide food for animals like Buffalo, Prairie Chickens, White-Tailed Deer, and other birds
      • Provide clean air by filtering out carbon dioxide and other pollutants
      • Clean the water (i.e., trap and cycle pollutants and chemicals)
      • Provide grain and other food sources for humans
  1. Using the Prairie Graphic Organizer worksheet or their own journal/notebook entry, have students complete the remaining sections on the front. Ask for students to share something they learned and something that surprised them.
  2. Next, each student will create a prairie scene on the back of the Prairie Graphic Organizer. Using the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve quarter design and prairie images as a guide, demonstrate to students how to draw a prairie grass with the roots below it. The model should show the prairie grass, roots, flowers, and at least two animals. If students get done early, have students research additional plants and animals to add to their drawing.
    • If teaching in person, have students make their prairie drawings using various art supplies (e.g., colored pencils, crayons, markers)
    • If teaching remotely, have students find materials around their house that they can use (e.g., crayons, markers, colored pencils).
  3. Once students complete their prairie drawings, have them create another drawing of a grassy spot located near their house or neighborhood (e.g., yard, park) on a separate piece of paper. Ask the students to explain how the drawings are similar and how they are different.

Session Two

Essential Questions: What role do prairies play in the ecosystem of North America? What threats do they face? Why are they important to preserve and protect?

  1. Review with students what a prairie is and the key characteristics of prairies.
  2. Create a T-chart on a projector, smartboard, whiteboard and/or via a digital presentation. On side of the T-chart, write "Environmental Benefits". On the other side, write "Human Benefits". Explain to students that prairies play a very important role in the environment as well as human communities. They provide food, habitat, and protection for animals and humans.
  3. Re-watch the video, Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie (excerpt)": youtube.com/watch?v=G_xI7xJXC7A
  4. Create a T-chart on the board or virtual whiteboard. Label one side "Environmental Benefits" and the other "Human Benefits." Ask students to copy the T-chart into a piece of paper. Ask students to name some of the benefits of prairies that were discussed in the video (listed below) or from what they learned in Session One. After each benefit is listed, ask if it is a human benefit or an environmental benefit. Write each benefit under the correct column in the T-chart. Examples of responses can include:
    1. Environmental Benefits
      1. Roots protect the soil and help prevent the impacts of drought.
      2. The grasses and flowers provide food for birds and pollinators, like bees and butterflies
  • The grasses also provide food for grazing animals like buffalo and cows
  1. Controls stormwater / runoff from the land by capturing sediment and/or pollutants to help clean the water
  1. Human Benefits
    1. Provides a food source for grains, breads, and animals humans use for food, like cows
    2. Helps reduce the carbon dioxide present in the air
  • Root systems clean the water
  1. Let the students know that they will be creating a class Prairie Quilt. Use the pictures from the NPS Labor Day Quilt Display or other sources as a guide. Remind students about how quilts connect to the prairie. People who left their homes to move during Westward Expansion often brought and made quilts to keep their families warm. These quilts often became family heirlooms and quilting techniques were passed down from one generation to another.
    1. If teaching in person, break students into small groups.
    2. If teaching remotely, instruct students that they will make their own quilt square on a piece of paper or another medium (e.g., a large brown paper grocery bag).
  2. Using the T-chart as a guide, instruct students to choose a benefit that they think is important. Using the Prairie Praise Quilt Template worksheet as a guide, model for students how to write a sentence explaining why prairies are important using the benefit they selected.
    1. If teaching in person, have students cut out their quilt square from the template and re-write their sentence on the square.
    2. If teaching remotely, have students draw a quilt square on a piece of paper, re-write their sentence, then cut it out and color it.
  3. Ask students to draw or decorate their square to show the benefit they selected in the extra space of the quilt square.
  4. Instruct students to either tape or glue their prairie squares together. Allow students to continue to create more quilt squares that describe additional benefits to fill out their quilts further.
    1. If teaching in person, take turns presenting each group's quilt to the class.
    2. If teaching remotely, have students show their quilt squares to an adult and/or virtually.
  5. After each group presents, keep the students in the same groups. Instruct the class that they will work together to brainstorm a list of things that might harm the prairies.
    1. If teaching remotely, have students write out a list of things that could be harmful to prairies on their own for a few minutes.
  6. Ask the groups to check off the items they wrote down as you explain some of the threats facing prairies today. Ask the groups to raise their hands when they have an item that you explain.
    1. Lack of fire - if prairies aren't burned, new grasses can't grow and other species of plants will start to grow, like trees. Then the prairie is no longer a prairie.
    2. Weeds – sometimes non-native species of plants are planted nearby and can spread into prairies. This can impact the animals on the prairie and the prairie itself.
    3. Overgrazing – if cows, buffalo or other grazing animals eat too much of the grass, it can impact the whole habitat
    4. Farming – instead of letting prairie remain, humans have converted it into farmland
    5. Cities and Towns – humans have created communities where prairies once were
    6. Industry and Transportation – as humans created communities, they also created factories to manufacture goods. Humans also needed roads and railways to transport these goods and people. Building factories and transportation systems meant covering over prairie lands with concrete or other substances.
  7. Ask the groups which threats are ones humans can control. Discuss with the group some ideas for how you can help protect prairies. Some ideas include:
    1. Educate others about the importance of prairies
    2. Keep the land and water clean (e.g., do not dump waste into the sea)
    3. Help to plant native grasses in your area
    4. Get involved in your local community about prairie conservation
    5. Pick up trash or debris around your local community
    6. Visit prairie conservation areas, if possible, to learn more about how you can help

Session Three

Essential Questions: What are pollinators? Why are they important to the prairies?

  1. Review what prairies are, why they are important, and what benefits they have for both the environment and human communities.
  2. Explain that prairies are a habitat for many kinds of pollinators. Remind students that pollinators are insects and other animals that help plants reproduce by moving pollen from one plant to another.
  3. Explain to students that pollinators are very important to all of us because if plants cannot produce seeds and grow, we would not have food to eat and clean air to breathe. We need plants like grains, fruit, vegetables and nuts – all of which rely on pollination!
  4. Explain that pollen is an important powdery substance created by plants. Sometimes people are allergic to pollen and it makes people sneeze or cough.
    1. Pollen can spread in the wind but it is mostly spread via pollinators.
    2. Pollinators eat the nectar inside flowers and when they land to eat the nectar, the pollen sticks to them. Then, when the pollinators go to another plant, the pollen falls off to pollinate the new plant.
  5. Explain to the students that they will do an experiment to show how pollination works.
    1. If teaching remotely, ask students if they have powdered sugar at home. If not, they may be able to use flour, cornstarch, corn meal, or baby powder to do the activity. Modify the instructions below for individual use. Students can create their flowers and use a powdery substance to demonstrate pollination at home.
  6. First, break students into groups and give each group two paper plates and several pieces of construction paper.
    1. Ask one student in each group to cut a flower out of one sheet of construction paper. Demonstrate how to cut a flower if students need help.
    2. Ask for another student to cut another flower out of a different color of construction paper.
    3. In the middle of one flower, have one student draw a square with a marker where the nectar would be and label it "Stamen." This is flower #1. Demonstrate by drawing and labeling your flower. Ask the students to place flower #1 on a paper plate.
    4. On the other flower, ask one student draw a circle in the middle of the flower and label it "Pistil." Demonstrate by drawing and labeling your flower. This is flower #2. Ask the students to place flower #2 onto the other paper plate.
    5. Next, explain to the students that you are going to give them powdered sugar to represent the pollen. Ask them to wait to touch the sugar until you have visited each group. Walk around to the groups and put one to two spoonfuls of powdered sugar on flower #1.
    6. Then, ask the students to pretend that their hand is a butterfly or a bee. Ask them to "fly" to the first flower that has the powdered sugar. Tell them while their hands are on this flower, they are drinking the nectar. Yum! Tell them to move their hands around to mimic how a bee or butterfly moves on the paper plate. While they move their hands around, explain that the students are rubbing against a part of the plant called the stamen.
    7. Next, ask the students to look at their hands and describe what is on them. Tell students not to touch anything while they look at their hand. Remind students that the powdered sugar represents the pollen. Ask the students to "fly" to the other flower at their group. Ask them what they see on the paper. Ask them how the pollen got onto the new flower.
    8. Explain to students that when the pollen form one flower gets onto another, it makes its way to another part of the plant called the pistil, where it combines with a part called the ovule. Together, the pistil and the ovule will create a seed. Tell the students they just pollinated flower #2 and helped it to make new seeds.
    9. Ask students to clean up their workstations and return to their seats.
  7. Explain to the students that prairies need pollinators because they make sure the grasses and plants that grow there can continue to make seeds. Pollinators allow prairies to stay healthy and ensure that the prairies can provide food, clean air and water for all of us.
  8. Explain that the pollinators need the prairies too because they like to drink the nectar from certain plants and animals. The same way that people like certain kinds of foods, pollinators sometimes only like the nectar from a few kinds of flowers. Sometimes, there are flowers that are easier for animals to eat from. For example, birds like flowers that they can easily drink from with their beaks.
    1. If the amount of prairie habitat shrinks, then the butterflies and other pollinators have fewer opportunities to eat the nectar they usually eat.
    2. If they cannot find enough nectar, the may not get enough nutrients to survive and reproduce. The size of the prairie habitat impacts the survival of pollinators.
    3. Remind students about why it is important to preserve prairies.
  9. Ask the students to reflect on the pollen activity and ask them to each share something they learned about pollinators.

Session Four

Essential Questions: What are Regal Fritillary butterflies? What does the Regal Fritillary life cycle include? How can we protect these butterflies?

  1. Review what prairies are, what pollinators are, and why pollinators and prairies go hand-in-hand.
  2. Explain that on the prairies, butterflies are important pollinators. One such butterfly is the Regal Fritillary. Show students the image of the coin and other images of the Regal Fritillary.
    1. Regal Fritillary butterflies are large butterflies with orange wings with black and white markings. Show students images of the Regal Fritillary on the back of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve quarter and images from other sources. Ask the students if they know of other kinds of butterflies, like the Monarch, and if they have seen butterflies in their yards or parks before.
  3. Explain to students that the Regal Fritillary is a unique butterfly.
    1. The Regal Fritillary used to fly all over the United States, from New England to Minnesota, south to Arkansas and west to Colorado. Now, it only remains in a few states like Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
    2. This butterfly can only be found in certain places because it only likes to eat certain plants and flowers that grow on the prairie. Specifically, they love to eat violets.
    3. This butterfly also has a unique life cycle. It only lays eggs once a year, which means it is important that all the eggs grow into butterflies each year.
  4. Explain to the students that there are six major parts of the Regal Fritillary's life cycle:
    1. Like all butterflies, they start out as pupae and emerge into butterflies.
    2. As butterflies they eat nectar and find a mate to reproduce. This happens in the early summer.
    3. The females will lay eggs. This only happens once a year so it is important that the eggs are hidden and do not get destroyed.
    4. The eggs hatch and the caterpillars go into hibernation through the winter.
    5. In the springtime, the caterpillars feed on the new leaves of the violets. When the Regal Fritillary caterpillars are ready to eat, the timing matches the growth of prairie violets.
    6. Then the caterpillars enter the chrysalis stage in late spring. The butterflies emerge from the chrysalis and the cycle begins again.
  5. Explain to students that they will play a game together to learn about the Regal Fritillary Life Cycle.
    1. If teaching virtually, this activity can be done in using multiple breakout room whiteboards. Share with them the digital copy of the Regal Fritillary Life Cycle cards as a guide. Break students into groups of 5 or 6 and ask them to each draw a part of the Regal Fritillary Life Cycle on a whiteboard in their breakout room.
    2. If teaching in person, have one piece of construction paper per every six students on hand.
    3. If you do not have a class size that breaks evenly into groups of 6, you can allow groups to double up on one or two stages in the life cycle.
  6. Using the Regal Fritillary Life Cycle Cards you cut out, pass out one card per student. Tell the students this card is just for them and not to share with their neighbors. Explain that each student has one step in the life cycle.
  7. Ask each student to read the card to themselves. Then, ask the students to draw out what the card describes on the card underneath. Use one step in the life cycle to demonstrate what kind of drawing might work.
  8. After each student has completed their drawing, explain the rules of the game.
    1. When you tell them, they will stand up and walk around the room without talking.
    2. When you say go, they are going to try to form groups of 6 where each person has one stage of the Regal Fritillary life cycle.
    3. When they have a group of with all the stages, they have to put themselves in the correct order. Then, they should let you know they are done so you can check their work.
  9. Tell the students it's time to start the game. As the groups put themselves in order, keep them standing in their group until everyone is done. This way if the groups do not form evenly or correctly, you can help the groups adjust. Give each group one or two pieces of construction paper.
  10. Once you have groups with each level represented (at least once), allow the groups to glue or tape their cards onto their construction paper to create the complete life cycle.
  11. After each group has completed their life cycle, allow each group to share one stage of the lifecycle and explain what was drawn underneath.
  12. Explain to students that if this life cycle is impacted by humans, it can prevent the butterflies from growing and reproducing. It is important that we protect the butterfly habitats, like the prairies, so the Regal Fritillary and other pollinators can continue to have places to eat and lay eggs.
  13. Explain to students that there are ways we can help protect butterflies. Examples include:
    1. Build a butterfly and pollinator garden in your yard, community garden, or school
    2. Educate others about the importance of pollinators and butterflies
    3. Avoid using pesticides or other chemicals in your yard (or ask your adults not to)
    4. Participate in a butterfly count. This is an activity some organizations lead but you could do on your own to document how many butterflies are in a specific area. It helps to track if butterflies are surviving.
    5. When you visit places in nature like Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, make sure you don't disturb butterflies or caterpillars in their habitats
  14. Ask students for other ways they can help protect butterflies.
  15. Have each student take out a piece of paper or pass out the Prairie Reflection worksheet. Ask the students to complete each question in complete sentences on the worksheet or on their paper.

Differentiated Learning Options

  • Allow students to complete activities virtually. Suggested ways to adapt activities are included in the lesson steps section


  • Evaluate the research, ability to answer questions, and students' participation to assess how well the students have met the lesson objectives.

Common Core Standards

English Language Arts (ELA)

Grade 3:

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.4: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 3 topic or subject area.

Grade 4:

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.4: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.

Grade 5:

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.4: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.


Grade 3:

  • ELA-LITERACY.W.3.7: Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.
  • ELA-LITERACY.W.3.8: Recall information from experiences or gather information from print and digital sources; take brief notes on sources and sort evidence into provided categories.

Grade 4:

  • ELA-LITERACY.W.4.7: Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • ELA-LITERACY.W.4.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information and provide a list of sources.

Grade 5:

  • ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • ELA-LITERACY.W.5.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

National Standards

Discipline: Science
Domain: NGSS-4-6 Next Generation Science Standard
Cluster: Earth and Space Science Disciplinary Core Concepts
Grade(s): Grades 4–6

  • ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
  • ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

Discipline: Science
Domain: NGSS-4-6 Next Generation Science Standard
Cluster: Life Science Disciplinary Core Concepts
Grade(s): Grades K–12

  • LS1.A: Structure and Function
  • LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
  • LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience