What to Buy Your Kids for Christmas: Unscripted Toys

Wondering what to buy your kids for Christmas? What are the best toys for kids this year? What will bring out the best in them and make them geniuses?

It’s an easy answer, but one that might surprise you. (As well as save you some mullah, mullah, mullah.)

The answer: Unscripted toys.

Say what?

What are Unscripted Toys?

Unscripted toys are toys that are not licensed. They don’t match up with a movie. Or a video game. Or a book. Or bedding. Think… building blocks and simple toys like that. Toys that don’t come with a predetermined story. These toys can be props for many different kinds of play. They can be almost anything.

For example, a scripted toy would be a lovely magic wand you picked up at the toy store. An unscripted toy would be the amazing stick your kid found in the backyard. When your kids play with a magic wand–what is it? Chances are 9 times out of 10 it is a magic wand. Now think about when you kid plays with a stick. It’s rarely the same thing twice. It’s unscripted. It doesn’t have a predetermined ‘this is it’ attached to it. Sticks can be a magic wand, but they can also be canes, guns, limbo rods, something to poke with, something to float in the river, swords, scepters, digging devices, and so much more.

Another example of an unscripted toy would be blocks. Few children have blocks these days, however, according to Parenting Science: complex block-play is linked with advanced math skills in later life.” Playing with unscripted toys such as blocks promotes language skills, imagination, creative thinking, and even math and spatial skills. (Ever tried making a freehand Lego plane without any spatial skills?)

And yeah, it’s true that few kids scream and go “OHMIGOD, you got me blocks! You are the best mom EVER!” when they unwrap an unscripted toy from under the tree. (The marketers of scripted and licensed toys sure know what they are doing, that’s for sure!) But think about those building blocks. What are they? What can they become? How many different uses can they have? (Ours have been everything from towers for knocking over to playgrounds and complex houses for Littlest Pet Shops to roads for toy cars.) Blocks are a toy that will grow with the kids and won’t require you to spend another $200 so your kids can enjoy the full building block experience and play out the whole building block story. It’s simple. It’s healthy. It’s fun!

Scripted Toys vs. Unscripted Toys: The Case of Barbie

When I started thinking about scripted toys, I thought about Barbie. She’s an interesting chick. She can be both scripted and unscripted.

Scripted Toys: Barbie vs. Muskateer Barbie

An example of unscripted would be the nothing-special Barbie you get for less than $10. Scripted Barbie is generally over $30 such as my daughter’s Muskateer Barbie. Muskateer Barbie is based on the Barbie movie, Barbie and the Three Muskateers.

When my daughter plays Barbies, Muskateer Barbie always Muskateer Barbie. Why? Because she came with a script. A script that says she rescues people and dares to believe in herself. (Not a bad script.) Muskateer Barbie rides a horse and my daughter (she saw the movie before getting the Barbie–marketer’s paradise, hello!) believed she needed a horse to fully play out the script of Muskateer Barbie. A Kleenex box car wouldn’t do for her! No way. She couldn’t ride the leopard teddy bear like the other Barbies because it wasn’t part of the script. And unlike Miss Whatever-Nothing-Special Barbie, Muskateer Barbie was not the star in zillions of scripts ranging from Rapunzel, Island Princess, Rock Star, Mother, Mean Girl, or Fairy. Nope. She was a one-way-to-play only kind of gal.

Why is this?

Because of the script surrounding the Barbie. It limited my daughter’s perception of what this Barbie could be and what sort of adventures she could have.

Think of the average Lego kit you see in stores these days. They usually have something to do with some blockbuster movie, don’t they? (Thinking of Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars off the top of my head.) Kids collect these kits. They build them as per the directions using no creativity, imagination, and with limited problem solving. They play with the Lego set in the way the script (preordained by adults, I might add) and in that one way. Then it sits on their shelf. They don’t take them apart and make them a million and one other things like we used to with those random ‘uncool’ kits you rarely see kids with these days.

If you take a look down most toy aisles you are going to see that 80% or more of the toys are licensed, scripted toys. In other words they are part of some larger story some brilliant marketers have dreamed up.

Is this bad?

Yes, and no. If you want to keep buying lots of toys to ‘satisfy the need to fill the script’ then go for it. Sometimes those scripts can be a jumping off point for other, powerful, imaginative play. (My daughter and her friends played Muskateers for many recesses during the Muskateer Barbie phase and focused on being strong, powerful, confident girls who had the resources to save the prince. I liked that. It was a good phase and that script talked to them about empowerment that I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish.)

However, if you want toys that are going to last your kids through something longer than a week to a month long phase and want to build some problem solving, creativity, and math skills (hello, blocks), as well as let your kids out of the mold for a bit, then consider putting a few things under the tree this year that might include these unscripted toys:

Unscripted Toys To Put Under the Tree

  • Craft kits–open ended with beads, string, stickers, glue, paper, etc., so kids can make WHATEVER they want and in whatever combination suits their fancy. You may find it is easier to make up a kit like this on your own as most kits are designed for kids to make one thing, and one thing only.
  • Art supplies. Lots and lots of it!
  • Lego–non kit kind. (Get the little Lego people too. Kids LOVE the people and they are the basis of many creative adventures!)
  • Animal figurines. Dinosaurs, farm animals, wild animals, you name it, go for it!
  • Barbies and action dolls that don’t have to do with a script. (Regular old $4 Barbie vs $30 Special Movie Princess Barbie.)
  • Toys with no batteries. Toys with batteries that make the sounds for the kids replaces the desire for them to make those sounds themselves. For example, those robot dogs, while seemingly cool, lose their appeal in about 5 minutes because there in only one way to play with them and that way gets really boring, really fast. You don’t even make the noise for the dog and determine its moods. Bummer, dude.
  • Any toys that you feel could become a million and one things.
  • Balls
  • Balloons–the more the better. Have a balloon fest! (For our 2-year-old we once filled a room with balloons. Er, I mean Santa did. She spent HOURS in there playing. Best $2 we ever spent.)
  • Blocks (Of course)
  • Dress up clothes that are versatile. (A fancy dress that isn’t something specific like a licensed Disney Sleeping Beauty princess dress so it can be worn in many different ‘fancy dress’ adventures.)
  • A puppy. A real one.

In other words, try to avoid some of the toys that are part of a larger merchandising scheme. Hand your kids a couple of unscripted toys this Christmas and sit back and watch. At first your kids might ignore them for the shiny well-marketed toys or be at a loss on what to do with these ‘open-ended’ toys. You may find to initiate play you may have to get down and play with them for a few minutes. Then sit back and watch some free play take off!

How about you? What do you think about scripted toys? Are there some unscripted toys that have been a real hit in your world?

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