How to Educate Children for Realism: Older than Age 6

From the Bring Back Reason series.

A child’s first introduction to science should be nature studies.

When the child is old enough to read and write he should start to study nature in a more formal way. Formal nature studies can be done well either as part of homeschooling or in a school. At The Heights School the lower school boys (grades 3 – 5) take Natural History as their science class. The exact curriculum is determined partly by what the boys encounter in the wooded valley where the lower school is located. Boys keep a nature journal and draw pictures of animals and plants and write descriptions of what they observe. On the ground floor of a log cabin is a nature room called Toad Hall. Here the boys take care of some live animals and study other nature exhibits.

Teach children the classical meaning of substance and accidents.

Teaching about substance and accidents fits very well with nature studies. A six or seven year old child is old enough for this lesson. The parent or teacher should tell the youngster that a substance is something that exists by itself and not in another thing and that an accident (or use the word “property” if you prefer) is something that exists in another thing. Give him examples such as Jimmy is a substance but Jimmy’s hair or arm are accidents. Ask him to identify things as substances or accidents. Turn it into a game. Ask for identification of such things as the following:

  • Mommy – substance
  • Fido – substance
  • Fido’s fur – accident (as long as it is on Fido and not shaved off)
  • White – accident (“White and other colors only exist in things and not by themselves… have you ever seen a ‘white’ running around?… that would be silly”)
  • Jimmy’s shirt – substance (it is not part of Jimmy)
  • Jimmy’s leg – accident (it is part of Jimmy)
  • Fido’s ball – substance
  • Tall – accident (tall and short only describe real things and do not go around by themselves… silly to think of “tall” walking down the street)
  • This rock – substance
  • The weight of this rock – accident

Parents should ask their young children to identify many things as substances and accidents and encourage them to “play this identification game” themselves. As children go through this process they will start to think of artificial things and wonder about them. This may come up when a child asks about Mommy’s phone, the car or the house. The simplest and mostly adequate answer is that such things are substances. The phone is simply a phone, made to do the things a phone is designed to do.

More inquisitive children may be ready for a bit more here. A parent or teacher could point out that when we say a phone and a bunny rabbit are both substances we actually mean somewhat different things. Ask the child whether he can figure out the difference. He may be able to say that the rabbit is more of a substance than the phone because the parts of the phone can be replaced in such a way that it does not matter whether a broken screen is replaced with a new one. The rabbit is not like this since all its parts belong to it in a more complete way: it is not as easy to take off a rabbit’s leg and replace it with another one. It is not necessary to go into the exact distinction between formal causality as it is present in nature and as it is analogously present in manmade things. But if the parent or teacher is clear on this distinction (see above chapter on realism) then he can speak about this in a way that makes sense to the child.

An excellent resource for teaching children about substance and accidents is A Kid’s Introduction to Physics (and Beyond) by Anthony Rizzi, PhD (ISBN 9780981647036). Rizzi’s book is an excellent guide for parents and teachers. Along with its companion video, it presents a way to teach the right content to young children. Rizzi shows how he uses basic Aristotelian physics, specifically the distinction between substance and accidents, to prepare his daughter Tomisina for her first Holy Communion. A grasp of substance and accidents are important for properly understanding the Eucharist.

Teach the difference between proper accidents and mere accidents.

After a child has a firm grasp of substance and accidents, which means he not only knows the meanings of these words but that he habitually thinks of things in this way, he is ready for the next step. He is ready to learn about the distinction between a proper accident and a mere accident. A proper accident is something that a substance typically or properly has simply because it is the type of thing that it is. Having two arms is a proper accident for a person. If he looses one of his arms in an automobile crash he is still a person. But he now is missing something, namely an arm, which is ordinarily characteristic of being a man. A mere accident is not proper to being a certain type of thing. Hair and skin color are mere accidents. There is no sense of someone being any more complete as a human being because his hair or skin is a particular color. The same can be said for many other things, such as possessions or where a person is or grew up.

The distinction between proper and mere accidents also fits well with nature studies. A parent or teacher can point out that a typical spider always will have eight legs, even if the front two legs are not used for walking and thus not apparently legs. A study of real spiders can confirm this. But when someone comes across a spider with only seven legs it is clear that the spider somehow lost a leg. Having eight legs is a proper accident for a spider. If it is missing a leg then it is still a spider, although handicapped by the loss.

The tremendous variety among different breeds of dogs is a great example of mere accidents. A dog may be small or large, with thick or short fur, a natural bird hunter or good at herding sheep. All the different breeds of dogs are still dogs. The differences proper to each breed are not proper to being a dog.

Once a child gets the difference between proper and mere accidents this is a great opportunity to talk about the dignity of all human persons regardless of skin color or other accidental differences. If someone loses a limb, he is not less of a human being, since he still is substantially who he is. Even more so it does not matter whether someone has a particular skin color.

Introduce matter and form through defining a physical thing.

Though not as important as substance and accidents, the distinction between matter and form can also be introduced. A physical thing is something that is something and can become something else. When a physical thing changes from one thing to a different thing it changes substance. An example of this would be a cat eating a mouse. Part of the mouse becomes the cat, a completely different substance. And the mouse is no more. The principle of a physical thing that accounts for its ability to change into something else is its matter; the principle of a physical thing that accounts for it being a particular type of thing is its form.

Some children may ask about things that are not physical. This gets into the realm of spiritual substances, like angels. An angel, unlike a human, cannot die since it has no matter. It is what it is and cannot become something different.

The rest of the curriculum should support the integral development of the person.

There has been much written about what constitutes a good curriculum for children from age 6 up, especially by those who involved in classical education. When children begin to read, helping them select well-chosen literature is very important for their development. They also will study mathematics, grammar, art, music, history, handwriting, spelling, and other subjects. There are many recommendations that can be made regarding these subjects but this has already been done by others and our focus here is specifically on aspects of restoring realism that have received less attention elsewhere.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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