In the evenings, Penny Malley and her four children settle down to family devotions as dad Ted reads Bible stories in their Los Osos home.
During the day, however, 7-year-old Katlyn, 5-year-old Tyler, 2-year-old T.J. and tiny 2-1/2-month-old Abigail hear a different message from school, friends and television. Bible stories get drowned out by "Power Rangers" and "Finding Nemo," Penny Malley said.
As social pressures from popular culture grow, faith-minded parents and teachers are turning to a wealth of religion-based games and toys to help teach kids about their family’s beliefs. From computer games and action figures to plush toys and puzzles, all take a fun, playful approach to the gospel.
According to Malley, reaching today’s kids means engaging their imagination.
"These kids are out in the world. They’re just like any other kid with what they want and desire," explained Malley, whose family attends Grace Church in San Luis Obispo. "But if we can put a positive spin on it, I’m all for it."
Keep up with the kids
One new toy aimed at teaching kids religious values is "Almighty Heroes," a new line of Biblical action figures dreamed up by G.I. Joe creator Joe Levine.
Depicting Old Testament heroes such as David, Moses and Noah, the muscle-bound figures sport the gaudy costumes and flowing hair of professional wrestlers, along with swords, crossbows and shields. Each comes with an illustrated comic book.
Although Malley has yet to see the action figures in stores, she thinks they’ll appeal to her boys.
"Kids these days are into the bright colors and the muscles," Malley said. "It’s the 21st century. They’re not going to be wimpy old men in robes."
Bible versions of classic board games like "Apples to Apples," "Scattergories" and "Outburst" are among the top sellers for The Parable Group’s chain of 192 Christian bookstores, said Sally Stevenson, marketing specialist with the San Luis Obispo company.
According to Stevenson, parents who shop at Parable stores like religion-based toys and games because they reinforce Christian values painlessly.
"This culture right now is just looking to get back to the moral values," Stevenson said. "You’re going to walk away with an idea of what the Bible said and what values Jesus had and what values you should have as well."
The hit video series "Veggie-Tales," for instance, uses computer-animated vegetables to tell Bible stories and moral lessons with songs, silliness and gentle humor. In addition to DVDs, the franchise features plush toys, storybooks, puzzles, even video games like "VeggieTales Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Minnesota Cuke and the Coconut Apes."
Ways to learn
So, what do singing cucumbers have to do with the crucifixion?
"These products make that link between head knowledge and life application," said Nancy Graves, director of children’s ministry at First Baptist Church in Paso Robles.
Her church subscribes to "Bible Champions," an online video game that ties action-adventure play with Sunday School lessons about the creation of the world or the birth of Jesus.
Graves said the game’s puzzles and tasks have proven popular with many of the 120 kids under her ministry. Plus, "Bible Champions" makes a positive connection to the same lesson students learned in class, she said.
"It’s like anything that’s a life skill or a lesson," said Graves. "The more it’s a part of your daily life, the more it becomes part of (you) instead of just something you do on Sunday."
For Jews, too
Christians aren’t the only religious group looking to toys and games to help kids learn about their faith, added Marsha Lifter of Congregation Beth David in San Luis Obispo. She works with 80 children from ages 5 to 14 as principal of the synagogue’s Hebrew and religious schools.
In one of Lifter’s classrooms, students can find board games like "Passover Overpass" and "Let My People Go," in which players face frogs, locusts and the other plagues of Egypt depicted in the Old Testament and the Torah.
Kindergarten-aged kids play with wooden puzzles showing props from the late-winter holiday of Purim or a family celebrating Shabbat dinner. Meanwhile, the teenagers in the congregation’s confirmation class learn about the dangers of gossip by watching scenes from the movie "Ten Things I Hate About You."
"It takes (Judaism) out of the realm of ‘This is in my book,’ " Lifter said. "We want the kids to be engaged and involved."
As helpful as religious toys and games can be, Grace Church lead pastor Tim Theule says they should be a starting point for parents — not a final solution.
For instance, Theule said, kids watching "VeggieTales" should learn about the Bible stories they’re based on.
"I don’t want my kids thinking that Jonah was a giant cucumber," said the father of four, adding that doing so could trivialize God’s message. "We have to make (the stories) serious at some point."
At the same time, Theule said, kids can find valuable lessons in toys and games that don’t necessarily carry an overtly religious message. He and his wife screen what their kids watch and play with based on language, violence and sexuality.
"The good, the beautiful, the just — these are values that we want to teach our kids," Thuele said.
For the Malley family, playing a Bible Trivia game or "Noah’s Rainbow Race" (a Christian version of the classic board game "Shoots and Ladders") usually means going back to the source — the Bible.
"If it opens a door to discussion, that’s great," Penny Malley said. "I don’t try to force things down their throats."