Museum of Science, Boston

Books for Kids

  • A Drop of Water
    , by
    Walter Wick
  • Butterflies and Moths
    , by
    Dorling Kindersley
  • EyeWitness Butterfly & Moth
    , by
    Paul Whalley

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Contact the Discovery Center and Living Lab staff at

Capillary Action Butterflies: Early Elementary Schoolers

Capillary Action Butterflies can be a fun science activity for people of all ages. We provide these generalizations as guidelines about what children at different ages might do during Capillary Action explorations at the Discovery Center’s Experiment Station, in the kitchen at home, or at school. Listed below are science and technology process skills that children may be practicing during their explorations. Please remember: each child develops at a different rate, so some children in each age group may be able to do some of the things described in the age group before or after their own.

How might early elementary schoolers explore Capillary Action?

Hypothesize - Early Elementary Schoolers

Early Elementary-aged children can consider the differences between multiple types of paper (like coffee filters, paper towels and typing paper), make predictions about their absorbencies, and then test their ideas.

Though which type of paper does your Early Elementary-aged scientist think water will move most quickly? Set up an experiment and test your ideas!

Model - Early Elementary Schoolers

This activity provides many opportunities to discuss some differences between butterflies and moths. Early Elementary visitors can think about how their butterfly is, or is not, a good model of the thing that it is supposed to represent.

Early Elementary Schoolers can consider how a model of something (like a coffee-filter butterfly) may represent the real thing (a butterfly) well in some ways, but that the same model may be inaccurate in other ways.

Butterflies vs. Moths

In nature, some butterflies are brightly colored, but others have very bland colors. Many real moths are dull, but some have very beautiful markings. The animal pictured here, above right, is a moth. Is the color of the model you made a good way to determine whether you've made a butterfly or a moth?

When deciding 'moth or butterfly?' it might help to know that butterflies are generally diurnal (active during the day), while moths are nocturnal (active at night). When does your creation fly about?

Butterflies rest with their wings closed*, moths with their wings open. How are the wings on your model positioned?

The body and antennae of a moth are fuzzy, just like a pipecleaner is fuzzy all along its length. Butterflies, in contrast, have a smooth body and antennae. A better model of butterfly body and antennae is a bread-tie that is rolled a little at each tip to form a little ‘bulb’ on the end of the antennae.

Extension Activity

Challenge older Early Elementary Schoolers to think about how butterflies and moths are different. Can your young scientist make a good model of a butterfly and a good model of a moth? What makes the two models good?

Help your young scientist conduct some research about butterflies and moths, in books or on the internet. What aspects of real butterflies and moths are still not represented in this kind of model?

Observe - Early Elementary Schoolers

Early Elementary aged children can describe what they see as the water slowly moves through the paper.

Extension Activity
Water dropped slowly on to a flat coffee filter will spread throughout the paper, carrying the pigments with it and mixing the colors.

The forces of adhesion and cohesion are so strong that water will also move up through a coffee filter, defying gravity, if one end of the paper is dipped in water.

To try this at home, color a coffee filter, fold it into a cone shape and dip the pointy end of the coffee filter paper into a cup that has a small amount of water on the bottom. See photo.

Things to Think About:
What happens to the water?

What happens to the colors?

How far up can the water go through the filter?

Does this work with other kinds of paper? Why or why not?