Teaching critical thinking in early childhood classrooms with The Very Hungry Caterpillar

  • Published on October 27, 2017

The importance of teaching children from a young age to think critically about material presented to them, rather than to be unquestioning consumers of information, seems to be increasing in this era of fake news.

Misinformation is readily available and often cleverly disguised as fact. Answers found in an internet search are not always correct. Being able to navigate one’s way through it all is a very important skill, regardless of age.

While some may be suitable, I am not suggesting we start discussing global news stories in our early childhood classrooms.  We can begin with discussions of stories and information we present to them each day.

family reading

Teachers and parents can help children develop critical thinking by:

  • pointing out and discussing inaccuracies and inconsistencies that occur in texts;
  • encouraging them to think about what they are reading and hearing and to evaluate it against what they already know;
  • supporting them to verify the source of the information and to check it against other more authoritative or reliable sources; not everyone is an expert;
  • helping them to recognise that every author has a purpose and to identify that purpose;
  • inviting them to ask questions about what they are reading and to interrogate the content;
  • letting them know that it is important to not just accept everything encountered in print.

Of course, I am not suggesting that every text read must be interrogated relentlessly. Reading for enjoyment is important too. However, being aware of and using the teachable moments as they appear are effective ways of tuning children into any inaccuracies and misinformation that occur.

In this post I provide some suggestions to get you started, including the use of one particular picture book.

I have previously discussed the value of developing science biology units that provide children with opportunities to observe the life stages of minibeasts, including butterflies, in the classroom. The observations are most effective when supported by access to information in non-fiction books, and stories about minibeasts and butterflies are shared.

very hungry caterpillar

Though published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar continues to be one of the world’s most popular picture books. According to the website of the author Eric Carle, the story has been translated into more than 62 languages, and over 46 million copies have been sold worldwide. It ranks highly in the Wikipedia List of best-selling books. With it colourful illustrations and engaging text, it is loved by children and adults everywhere.

Teachers use The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Mathematics lessons for counting activities and for teaching the days of the week. They use it Literacy lessons for shared reading, encouraging children to join in, predict and read the familiar text. They use it for storytelling and performance. They use it to stimulate a vast range of craft and art activities.

But have you considered using The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a resource for teaching critical thinking? I’ll show you how to do so as part of a science biology unit.

Towards the end of the unit, when the children have learned about the life stages of a butterfly through observations and reading, introduce the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The children may already be familiar with it. That’s okay. We’re going to ask them to think about it a little differently, to think critically, rather than simply for enjoyment.

With their knowledge of butterfly life stages, it usually takes little prompting for children to notice the inaccuracies in the story.

eric carle fact or fiction

They often want to write to the author and tell him of his mistake.

However, when told that he already knows and that he isn’t going to change it, as confirmed in an interview reported on the Scholastic website, they are incredulous.

Eric Carle cocoons

“Why would he do that?” they ask.

When told that he doesn’t care that it isn’t quite right, they are indignant.

Herein lies its value:

Their knowledge of butterfly life stages can be affirmed and, more importantly, the understanding that, just because something is in print doesn’t make it true, can be developed.

Discussion of this one point, can lead children into a whole range of critical thought, including questions such as:

  • When you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, did you think caterpillars ate a lot of different food? Did you think butterflies came out of cocoons?
  • What do you now know?
  • Do picture book authors have a responsibility to ensure information shared is factual?
  • What is the purpose of fictional picture books?
  • Is saying that a butterfly comes out of a cocoon the same as telling stories about giants and unicorns?

cocoon or chrysalis

An additional benefit is the development of a need to know, of verification of information. When children are presented with false information, they may be stimulated to seek out correct information and write books of their own, both fiction and non-fiction, that present the facts. For example, they may wish to investigate questions such as:

  • What is the difference between a cocoon and chrysalis?
  • How do butterflies and moths differ?
  • What do butterflies eat?
  • What do moths eat?
  • What do butterfly caterpillars eat?
  • What do moth caterpillars eat?

Children realise early on that animals don’t really behave like humans and wear clothing. They don’t expect their toys to come to life and start talking. They quickly understand, when it is explained to them, that unicorns and dragons are mythical creatures and, to our knowledge, don’t exist.

Children are not likely to say that elephants wear dresses because they saw one in a book. However, they may think that butterflies come out of cocoons if the error is not discussed. Does it matter?

Maybe not, but what does matter is that we teach children to be discerning rather than unthinking consumers. Inaccuracies such as these in books that are familiar to them, no matter how seemingly innocuous, are a good place to start teaching critical thinking in early childhood classrooms.

use picture books teach critical thinking

For other suggestions, check out Using picture books to teach critical thinking in early years classrooms.

For the record: I am not for one moment suggesting that we get rid of picture books and stories. I love them! And as I have said, and will repeat: they are essential to a child’s learning and development. There is no such thing as too many or too often with picture books.

Instead, I would like you to consider the misconceptions that may be developed when the content of picture (and other) books may be misleading, and how we adults should handle that when sharing books with children.

symmetrical name butterfly

Even the recently uploaded readilearn resource Make a symmetrical name butterfly could be accused of not displaying anatomically correct butterflies. However, the purpose of the lesson is to develop ICT skills and teach symmetry. I would be thrilled to know that children comment on the accuracy of the illustration and decide to make more anatomically correct drawings.

There are many fascinating videos available online that show the process of butterfly caterpillars forming chrysalises, or of moth caterpillars spinning cocoons. There are also videos of butterflies and moths emerging from their pupae. Be sure to display the videos advertisement-free to your students. Not all ads are suitable for young viewers.  I also urge caution when accessing information from websites, or books that attempt to guide your use of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. Just as you need to think critically about the accuracy of the information presented, so do children.

For a lengthier discussion of this topic, please read

Searching for meaning in a picture book — Part A

Searching for purpose in a picture book – Part B

Searching for truth in a picture book – Part C

Finding power in a picture book – the main event


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    YES to critical thinking! I know adults who watch the news and take it all as fact when the reality is that reporters can make mistakes. Sometimes information collected is not accurate. I think this post is needed now more than ever. I like how you discuss the topic not only for teachers but also for parents, Norah.

    Thank you, Christy. I appreciate the support you add to my words, and the additional information you share. It is difficult sometimes to know what to believe and what not to believe. It is important to be able to assess the authenticity of anything we read or hear.

    I love the story of The Hungry Caterpillar and I have two copies to this day. I never really questioned those mistakes as it is fiction and was just a super fun read. Interesting to see this story discussed from a different point of view. Great post.

    The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a lovely story, isn’t it, Robbie. I also own a number of copies in different formats and quite a bit of merchandise, including games. It provides many opportunities for children to learn, including critical thinking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

    Very engaging post for parents, teachers and kids. I didn’t realize how many ways you can use Eric Carle’s book. I didn’t know about the use of the cocoon stir. I agree with him. It just wouldn’t sound right and it’s a great metaphor.

    Hi, Patricia. Thank you for you lovely comment. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. I also appreciate knowing your opinion of Carle’s word choice. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    This is fabulous, Norah. Expanding learning through a beloved and popular book is one of the best ways to teach. And, children love it! Science and language all in one. And cocoon? Eric Carle was right- it wouldn’t have worked any other way.

    Thank you so much, Jennie. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. I appreciate knowing your opinion on Carle’s word choice. Thanks for sharing.

    I love this post, Norah – balanced, yet informative as it encourages educators and parents to begin teaching critical thinking early. MUCH needed in our world today, in my strong opinion.

    Another lesson that could piggy-back off of everything you’ve written here is a discussion of black and white thinking, labeling and jumping to “all or nothing” conclusions. I’ve worked with a number of adults who who are trapped in that thinking style. I believe it’s a big problem in today’s political arenas, so I’d love to think that the upcoming generation would be mentored to have a more flexible thinking style, more able to participate as informed voters who have to make tough choices between flawed candidates whom they would probably never have chosen.

    I hope you realize that I know that my language is probably not early-learner-appropriate, but I think you’ll get my concepts and will easily be able to adapt the language to the vocabulary of young minds.

    Is a person a liar if he gets a fact wrong? How else can we think about what s/he did? etc.
    Can we believe part of a book and not ALL of it? (which gently leads into the slightly different ‘How do we know which part to believe?)
    Does something have to be perfect for us to find value in it?
    What do we do when we can’t have everything exactly our way? How do we pick the parts that are important?

    My hat’s off to ALL teachers. You have a tough row to hoe today – especially the teachers in American Public Schools. Your patience and dedication are admirable.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Madelyn, thank you so much for adding your wisdom to this post. Obviously I agree with you on the need for young people to be taught to think critically from an early age. I especially agree with these words of yours: “I’d love to think that the upcoming generation would be mentored to have a more flexible thinking style, more able to participate as informed voters who have to make tough choices.”
    The questions that you have suggested as discussion starters are great. They are important ones for adults to discuss as well as children. I, too, have seen too many with strongly held opinions and an unwillingness to consider alternatives. Being able to see things from another’s point of view is essential for the development of compassion and empathy. Critical thinking helps us interrogate situations we see occurring in our world.
    I think teachers in many parts of the world have a difficult job. It is wonderful that there are many who still go to work each day with a joyful outlook and the sole intention of making a positive difference to people’s lives.

    Excellent post Norah, particularly timely in this era of ‘fake news’. Why not teach the children the correct way with truth? Granted a picture book and make believe characters are part of fairy tales for children to expand their imagination, but when it comes to education they shouldn’t be taught false things. And yes, discussion should begin at home to prepare the child for outside forces they’ll encounter – a leg up to learn right from wrong before the wrongs are presented to them. 🙂

    Thanks so much, Debby. I appreciate the addition of your wisdom to the post. Sometimes it can be only a fine line between fact and fiction. Teasing out the difference can be problematic.

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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