Playing With a Higher Power

Many children's holiday wish lists will undoubtedly contain graphic video games and bone-crushing action figures this year, but for parents looking to give toys that teach religious values, there are many options to be unwrapped.

Whether they are playing Christian board games or hugging a Kwanzaa teddy bear, kids can have fun while embracing their respective religions.

"There's a backlash against the violent images and the sexual connotation in games and video games and on TV and the Internet," said Lew Herndon, chairman of the board for Talicor, Inc., a game and puzzle company. "Concerned parents are looking for alternatives to that kind of exposure for their children."

One popular item of families this year is the BibleMan board game, Herndon said. 

In the game, BibleMan and his friends are on a mission to rescue children that have been tricked by enemies of God. Players battle the villains using Faith, Love, Truth, Joy, Patience and Forgiveness. And the winner is the first one to deliver six children to the town church and get back to the BibleMan Cave.

The religious game market, while still niche, has evolved in terms of acceptance in the marketplace, experts said. 

"Thirty years ago there were very few (games) on the market," Herndon said. "Today there's a lot more product out there, and there is more awareness by the consumer."

And some religious game-makers say parents are relieved to have other options.

"Parents are glad we're there to try to have a different force than the other things out there," said Joseph Ambrosio, owner of

One toy called My Mass Tote, which helps keep young ones occupied during Mass, is a particularly hot seller for It includes coloring books, an activity book, a picture missal and Noah's Ark Lace'n Trace to keep kids busy, but still learning while parents are at worship.

Also popular on the site are Prayer Bears – Faith and Gracie. Push their tummy to hear a pre-recorded prayer or record a message of your own.

"Once we had to rush some (Prayer Bears) off," Ambrosio said. "A father who was in the military had to go overseas and wanted to record personal messages on each of his kid's bears before he left."

Muslim children can have fun while learning with the Arabic Talking School Bus.  Astrolabe Islamic Media sells this interactive toy  that combines talking characters, numbers and colors to teach kids the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Children also learn to follow directions as they press the raised plastic letters and numbers on the side of the bus while rolling it around the house.

And toy company Aurora manufactures a Kwanzaa Teddy Celebration Set, featuring three bears in traditional Kwanzaa dress and the seven symbols of observance, with an explanation of their means and usage.

While religious toys serve as an alternative to today's more violent games, Maria Weiskott, editor in chief of Playthings Magazine, said they're still considered a niche market in the toy industry.

"Whose value are they going to go with? Whose religion?," she asked. "It's hard for a large toy maker to produce a hot toy that's religious. It would have to appeal to a cross section."

But there are religious characters that have been able to make the leap to the mainstream. This year the cartoon-turned-movie VeggieTales hit big with kids across the board

"They are fun," said Weiskott. "When you squeeze them they tell you that you're a good person, that you're loved."

Beliefnet, multi-faith e-community, included VeggieTales' Thankful Larry Boy on its first annual list of morally uplifting holiday gifts for kids.

But not everyone is comfortable having their children taught religion by talking vegetables.

"You watch this at home with your kids, put it in your VCR and then you're surprised by the fact that you're being preached to by three-dimensional vegetables," Joe Johnson, a 34-year-old from Jersey City, N.J. told in reference to VeggieTales.

While games like Grand Theft Auto will be stuffed in many stockings across America this holiday, toys that teach lessons and love will make their way into some homes.

"It's important for people to have an alternative to a lot of the other product in the secular market," Herndon said. "There are some pretty terrible things out there that are influencing children's minds."