Each morning I sidestep miniature pirate accoutrement strewn across the floor and gather my kids’ coats and backpacks. As I reach for the doorknob, my son gives me a desperate look and cries, “We forgot my Playmobil magazine!” I dutifully swallow my stock speech about how “we” is not really appropriate here. Instead, I prompt him to look in all the usual spots. He locates his much-cherished catalogue and stuffs the dog-eared guide in his backpack. Around this time I start to feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”—reliving the same banal scenario over and over again with no inkling that a scintilla of change has been made. Like that hapless weatherman stuck in the wretched time-loop, I search for meaning in this absurd routine.
My son is a Playmobil collector, one might say ‘aficionado.’ And like any collector, he studies his compilation constantly. Although many parents with Mensa aspirations for their kids may push their offspring towards a collection with more gravitas and substance, say, stamps or currency, kids choose their own collecting obsessions. I guess I should be grateful he hasn’t latched on to Pokémon cards or a collection of animal scat.
A friend joked recently that Playmobil designers hate parents. Considering the infinitesimal pirate treasure that scatters absolutely everywhere, the miniscule “snap on” cuffs for the soldiers, and tiny flip flops for Playmobil beach goers, she has a point. More than once I’ve called out, “Curse you, Playmobil!” while cleaning the house. A pal coached me to just suck up the Playmobil accessories with my vacuum sans guilt, but I know that would bring more heartache. You see, like any avid collector, my son knows exactly which swords fit with which pirate set, which treasure chest goes with which boat, and he will assuredly enlist my assistance to search. And search. And search. If the piece in question is actually in the vacuum, I am doomed to a life of eternal searching.
Once we looked for a Viking’s plastic hair for days. It had popped off and rolled behind the file cabinet. Despite my urgings that we substitute hair from one of the other Viking figures, my son reminded me that the hair in question was orange. He couldn’t possibly make the Viking a towhead or brunette. It’s not that he isn’t willing to mix and match his accessories; he just knew that he had only a few redheads in his collection; he wasn’t going to let it go that easily.
Hans Beck certainly knew what he was doing when he invented the nearly 3 inch tall Playmobil figures in 1971. A cabinetmaker and model airplane designer, he developed the now ubiquitous play figures, but German toymakers were initially uninterested. All that changed with the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-4, as toymakers sought to develop toys that required less plastic.
Beck explained to the Christian Science Monitor in 1997, “My figures were quite simple, but they allowed children room for their imagination.” His figures—first referred to as “klickies”—haven’t really changed over the years: The heads, arms, legs and hands still move, and the figures still have benign smiles and no noses. Andrea Schauer, CEO of Playmobil manufacturer geobra Branstätter, said in a recent interview that although the figures haven’t changed much in four decades, Playmobil takes children’s feedback very seriously: “After all, children are the ones who have to like our products.” She asserts that although their sets still allow for great imaginative play, “Playmobil play worlds have become more sophisticated and diverse.”
Occasionally—despite having sold over 2.6 billion figures—Playmobil misses the mark. There was that 19th Chinese Railroad worker “coolie” display that customers found in poor taste. And then there was a set featuring medieval punishments: public stocks for smiley criminals and a “baker’s cage” for dunking in the river those tiny bakers whose loaves are deemed substandard. Beck insists that you must show all sides of history, distasteful for not.
I can think of more than a few important exceptions to this assertion, but I have to admit my 6-year-old son has already learned a tremendous amount about history from his Playmobil sets. We’ve had rich, detailed conversations about the era of the Caribbean pirates, types of Roman weaponry and the wooly mammoths of the Ice Age. He even loves to crack jokes about his Playmobil figures: “Mom, you know why these people couldn’t have made those cave drawings and hand prints? They can’t open their fingers!” He then demonstrates what it would look like for figures with hands curved in a permanent “C” to make artwork. It is funny. Every time.
Mark McKinley, writing in “The National Psychologist”, lists the many reasons why humans collect things: for fun and enjoyment, connecting with others who share similar interests, or viewing it as a big quest. Still others derive pleasure from “experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there.” According to McKinley, collecting can also serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life—a way to calm fears and ease insecurity.
Knowing that there are important social and psychological reasons behind this Playmobil obsession soothes my anxiety and eases my insecurity as we watch his desire for set after set. When he says he wants all the Playmobils in the world, he’s not kidding. We feel unsupportive of his collection when we joke that we will not drain his as yet meagre college fund to support his collecting habit. But unlike in the time warp of “Groundhog Day”, there’s always a fresh new day—complete with new Playmobils—and we are assuredly going to make a few more trips to the store.