SHARE
COPY LINK

TOYS

Ageing well: Toymaker Playmobil turns 40

Deep in the Bavarian countryside lies the home of German toymaker Playmobil, the centre of a universe of little plastic people who turn 40 in 2014 but have not aged a bit.

Ageing well: Toymaker Playmobil turns 40
Photo: DPA

P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }

The nondescript building in Zirndorf is the birthplace of Playmobil's 7.5-centimetre figurines with their signature round heads and smiling faces as simple as a child's drawing.

Since the first trio of them – a Native American warrior, a Medieval knight and a hard-hat construction worker – hit store shelves in 1974, they have enthralled children with scores of themes, from police to pirates.

"To create a new Playmobil universe takes about two years," said Bernhard Hane, the company's head of development, as he led AFP backstage into the birthplace of the little fellows.

Inside, corridors are lined with rows of drawers that contain 35,000 tiny accessories – from swords and armour to magnifying glasses to mini-toothbrushes – all designed to clip into the hands of the colourful characters.

In a workshop, employees use machine tools to create moulds for new toy sets, the treasures of the company, which can cost up to €180,000 and are a bulwark against counterfeiting.

The focus is on accuracy. All Playmobil figures, of which 2.6 billion units have been made so far, must be compatible with all accessories and scenery sets, from Wild West towns and castles to zoos and space stations.

A European product

Unlike most toy brands, Playmobil produces not in Asia but in Europe. The figures are manufactured in Malta, while animals and larger pieces, such as the ever-popular pirate ship, are made in a factory in Dietenhofen, Bavaria.

The products are assembled in the Czech Republic, then shipped back to Dietenhofen where they are packaged and stored in a warehouse as high as a 12-storey building.

Nearby, in the southwestern city of Speyer, a local museum has devoted an exhibition to Playmobil, which after four decades is going strong. Sales in 2012 hit a new record of 531 million euros and are expected to rise five percent this year.

Two-thirds of the sales are in Germany and France and, while the figures' success in Asia has been limited so far, the company sees further growth prospects in Europe and the United States.

The toys target children aged four to 12, while some lines have been made for toddlers.

There have been spin-off video games and animation DVDs, and a TV mini-series starring the little characters is to launch next year.

'Key to a child's imagination'

For the family company Geobra Brandstaetter, which makes the Playmobil line and now employs about 3,700 staff, the little plastic people brought salvation in the 1970s, when the oil crisis drove up the cost of manufacturing plastic products.

The figurines were the brainchild of mould designer Hans Beck, who used minimal amounts of plastic for a big idea.

"Playmobil found the key to a child's imagination in 1974 and it still holds it today," said chief executive Andrea Schauer, explaining its enduring success in a faddish and competitive sector.

In a world filled with high-tech sounds and screens, the brand continues to build on the simplicity of its characters to leave room for the imagination.

"The heart of Playmobil is role-playing," she said. "Children bring to life the stories they have in their minds."

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

PARENTING

Seven quirky things German parents do while raising their kids

It's common to romanticize the parenting techniques of other countries, but some tendencies of German Eltern can leave foreigners utterly confused.

Seven quirky things German parents do while raising their kids
File photo: DPA.

For full disclosure, I spent my first year in Germany as an au pair for a lovely German family in Berlin, so I often acted as a fly on the wall observing various German parents.

And while I could recognize many of their methods from my own American upbringing, there were certain rituals that gave me a bit of culture shock.

1. The vast amount of strange contraptions to transport little ones

Photo: DPA

Germans certainly can get creative when it comes to keeping their youngsters in tow. The precarious-looking buggies they have strapped to the front or back of their bikes still give me anxiety as I watch parents speed along busy city streets.

READ ALSO: An American parent in Germany, or how I learned to love the power tools

These surely must be safety risks? But alas I doubt police keep records of Fahrradanhänger-related injuries, so I cannot provide an answer.

2. Letting them play outside in freezing, awful weather

Perhaps this is just the impression of someone who grew up in warmer climates, but seeing German kids clambering around on playgrounds amid subzero temperatures and howling winds was quite a shock to me.

But parents here abide by the German saying: Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, es gibt nur falsche Kleidung. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

3. Impractical snow suits

Photo: DPA.

But despite what the Germans say about bad clothing, they apparently haven’t yet realized how awful and impractical those adorable one-piece snowsuits are. The target demographic for this garment – toddlers – are the worst choice for handling its fundamental restraints because they simply haven’t yet mastered bladder control. And still, come winter, this outfit is ubiquitous around schools and parks.

As soon as you hear that little desperate plea of ich muss pullern – I have to pee – you know it’s already a race to find the loo, and then you also have to unzip the snowsuit and take out the child’s arms before they can finally relieve themselves. Spoiler alert: that snowsuit often loses in the end and has to make a trip into the washer.

4. School ‘bags’ for their first day

Kids carrying their “school bags” in Dresden. Photo: DPA.

Honestly, I’m a bit more jealous of this ritual than baffled by it. Going off to that first day of Grundschule (primary school) is a much bigger deal in Germany than I remember it being for me in the US, and it’s tradition to give kids a Schultüte – school bag – to celebrate.

But the confusing thing about this “bag” is that it’s not actually any sort of bag or backpack as the name suggests, but rather a colourful cone filled with sweets and goodies.

SEE ALSO: Super cute things German kids do at primary school

5. Reading them very violent stories

Stories from the classic book Struwwelpeter. Photo: Peter/Flickr Creative Commons.

The first time I read the original German Brothers’ Grimm stories to the children I was babysitting, I found myself trying to censor the content. Especially when the kids asked me to translate the stories into English, I wondered whether that also should mean translating them through my American sensibilities.

From Hansel and Gretel being outright abandoned by their parents – rather than simply lost in the woods – to Snow White’s wicked queen being forced to dance herself to death, I struggled with reading these disturbing tales to such impressionable young minds.

And another German classic, Der Struwwelpeter, is no better. In it, one girl accidentally lights herself on fire and burns to death, a boy has his thumbs cut off with scissors, and another boy starves himself to death.

I’ll take the happy Disney endings instead, thank you.

SEE ALSO: Eight times Disney sugar-coated Germany’s cruel kids’ tales

6. Eating lunch exactly at noon

I suppose this one is just about Germans taking their term for lunch literally – Mittagessen literally means “noon meal”. At least it gives children some sense of a structured routine during the day.

Of course, getting kids to actually sit down right at noon is another story.

But the habit even seems to stick for adults, as you may notice with your German co-workers.

7. Not teaching them to read until age six

At least in the schools I attended in the US, it seemed there was a big push to get kids reading before age five and kindergarten.

But in Germany reading seems to be saved for when they first enter Grundschule at age six, with Kitas and Kindergartens careful not to focus too much on academics before then.

Still, getting a later start doesn’t seem to be having a negative impact: The latest PISA school performance report defined Germany as having a high share of “top performers” in reading.

8. Letting kids play near or with fireworks

Okay so this little one is still too young for even Germans to entrust with these fireworks, but the fact that this photo exists says something. Photo: DPA.

One of my closest German friend’s favourite childhood memories is setting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. And now that she lives in the US where purchasing these explosive devices is more restrictive in certain regions, she’s especially excited to return to Germany to watch things explode.

I was taken aback here how casually these pyrotechnics are sold in abundance at supermarkets. And Germany even has a special classification of lower-risk fireworks for kids that can be purchased over the age of 12.

But perhaps the fact that Germans are comfortable with this – and not enough fingers go missing around the holidays for them to want to change things – reveals more about American parenting habits: we’re a bit too cautious.

So maybe it’s better to stand back a bit, let them launch explosives into the freezing air while wearing their snowsuits, and trust that kids have a little more instinctive common sense than we give them credit for.

A version of this article originally ran on March 20th, 2017.

SHOW COMMENTS