Playing action figures with your kid(s)

It’s Saturday morning. The kids have watched enough television to make you feel the proper level of guilt. It’s cold outside, maybe it’s snowing. Inevitably, you hear the phrase that sends chills down your spine:

“I’m bored!”

We all know this is ok. The New York Times’ Pamela Paul has much to say about this:

It’s especially important that kids get bored — and be allowed to stay bored — when they’re young. That it not be considered “a problem” to be avoided or eradicated by the higher-ups, but instead something kids grapple with on their own.

…and I get it. Kids definitely need to learn on their own how to handle this “time away from screens” (which is, sadly, what I think it has become). This is simple to deal with when you are on the go — three birthday parties every Saturday, time spent at the grandparents, museum trips, etc. But on those snow days, stuck in the house, it’s easy to allow the television to take control.

On good days, I can declare a “screen-free-zone” for a few hours and no one bats an eye. My oldest heads to his room, grabs the latest Diary of a Whimpy Kid and buries himself in the covers for an hour. The 6yo grabs a handful of action figures and begins spitting and shouting, slashing them about, blaster noises sending spittle all over the living room couch.

But on tough days, the 6yo doesn’t want to play alone. He is desperate for a playmate. And how can I say no?

It’s action figure time.

What you will need


  • Action figures. Any will do. It helps to have a “set” of figures, but you can always go the “Toy Story” route (if your child will allow it — I hated mixing sets as a kid)
  • Patience. I mean I cannot emphasize this point enough. You are going to get bored. You are going to want to pick up your phone and browse Twitter. You’re going to want a beer or three. Hang in there, parent.
  • A good area to play. Basements are great because you don’t have to worry about “pausing” your play and leaving a mess in the living room. It also makes cleanup simple.
  • Small objects for building. I am a big fan of small wooden blocks. I just use the same ones my kids had when they were two (colorful, wooden blocks they’d shove in their face). Blocks work well for barriers, cover, and improvised chairs, tables, bars, etc.
  • Large objects for atmosphere. Not everyone can afford Castle Grayskull. At some point, even with the small sets you can buy at the store you’re going to need a bigger set. A coffee table with multiple layers that can act as a skyscraper, a cardboard box for a hangar bay, etc.
  • …to be ok with improvising. If you’ve ever played roleplaying games you are in the clear here. At some point your kid is going to get stuck with the story and ask you what happens next. Get ready for rejection, though. I know my kid hated it every time I tried to enact a love scene, or my favorite problem: “The network is down! General Grievous needs to restart his router before the droids go offline!”


  • Caffeine. If you’re like me, you’ll want to be just as excited as he is when General Grievous is finally taken out by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Get some caffeinated assistance in channeling that kid energy.

Let’s do this

There are infinite possibilities to play here. When in doubt, go with your gut. The following are just guidelines, a framework (if you will) to help you when you get stuck.

Choosing figures

We’re going to use Star Wars figures for this exercise because that’s all my 6yo wants to play with these days. He’s lucky enough that I kept all of mine as a child and that I’m willing to allow he and his brother to put their grubby little hands all over them. He also has a small ever-growing collection of his own, now that he’s become obsessed with the Clone Wars and Rebels television shows.

To begin, we generally dump them out, pick the weapons and accessories we care about, and then start arguing over who gets to play Darth Maul.

If you don’t have a large set of specific action figures, it can be fun to decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Maybe Barbie is your brave Knight and a twelve inch Hulk is your evil troll monster. Use whatever you’ve got and go with it. If you are confident, your kids will love it.

Breaking play up into Scenes

This is quite possibly the most important part. It will save you from the horrifying dread of an endless play session. Create scenes, set goals, and find a way to get yourself the hell out of there before anyone gets hangry.

Setting a scene is simple: Generally speaking, my 6yo already knows which figures he wants to play with, which will help in where to begin your story. For example, if he knows he wants to use Han Solo Frozen in Carbonite, a bunch of bounty hunters, and Darth Vader, then I have a pretty clear idea of where this is going.

On the other hand, if (as usual) he only cares about a final lightsaber battle between Savage Opress and Old Man Luke Skywalker (shut up, it’s a metaverse), then you have to find a way to create an interesting lead up to get you there. It’s like telling a novel in reverse.

So, I’ll consider why they are fighting. Maybe Savage Opress kidnapped Han Solo and Luke is there to save him. Or Luke wants to find out where Darth Maul is hiding and knows that Savage will provide him with the only lead…

Typically I approach each scene with some amount of discovery. Everyone becomes a detective. If my premise is that Opress kidnapped Han Solo, then first, Luke has to find out who has him (of course, in my 6yo’s mind he already knows but that’s ok). So, where would Luke go to find scum and villainy?

That’s right, a cantina.

Enter your bag of random small objects. Maybe you have an old dollhouse lying around with furniture, or (as I did) some small wooden blocks. Legos will also do for almost anything you need. Pick a spot on the ground, take a large bin lid and rest it against the wall at a 45 degree angle and you have a little space to set the scene where everyone can get in and out of for play. Drop some blocks in there as seats and put your “pirates” out there, chilling, not knowing what is about to happen…

A Pirate Scene
A pirate scene sans booze and contraband.

Our heroes approach, start asking questions, and before you know it BOOM there is a laser battle.

Now, not every scene needs to end this way. It just so happens that this is the decision made by my 6yo, and no amount of me requesting a peaceful resolution will change this. Blasters come out and pirates die, and Luke gets his information.

Another scene I like is the “oh no our ship is broken, we’re going to crash!” scenario. What planet do they end up on? Can they survive? Are there hostile life forms? What can they find for food and shelter? How can they get the ship started?

Some other fun ideas for scenes:

  • The network is down and General Grievous needs to restart his router before the droids go offline! (if your kid goes for this please let me know)
  • A distress call beacon is found in remote space. Who could it be? The characters must go planetside to investigate (or board another ship!)
  • The city is in trouble. There are earthquakes everywhere and your team of adventurers (or Transformers, let’s say!) must go in there to rescue humanity.
  • The heroes are ambushed when their secret rebel base is found by the evil Empire. Do they try and escape or fight their way out?

The best thing is, you can reuse these scenes time and time again, with slightly different settings and characters and your kid will be none the wiser.

A Note on Scenery, Atmosphere, and Play Area

As I said before, furniture, old blocks, and an assortment of containers and cardboard boxes are your friends. This isn’t just about playing with your kid, it’s about showing off your creativity! This isn’t just about making the kid happy, it’s about making the kid happy while not boring yourself to tears. So, yeah, bring out the blankets and build a dungeon set, or a cave. Go outside for a change of scenery! As a child I had fond memories playing GI Joe in a small pond, using bushes as mock forests. Don’t be afraid to get dirty!


Don’t get too excited about your ideas. At some point, your child is going to get annoyed. If you are like me, you tend to forget that any chance they can get to exert their will is critical to avoiding the inevitable meltdown. So, if you find yourself really pushing that sideplot where Princess Leia and Unknown Stormtrooper Number 5 escape through the jungle together for a weekend retreat on Endor, and your kiddo groans and just wants you to have a lightsaber battle… give in. Tell him it’s a great idea. Then finish your sideplot after bedtime when no one is watching.

And now, it’s time for a well-deserved nap.