Two big events are overlapping this week, at least in my life. This Sunday is Mother's Day. And this year marks the 40th anniversary of Playmobil. My absolute favourite children's toy, it made motherhood even more fun.
I didn't get to grow up with Playmobil, but I made up for that later. If either of my kids unwisely complained that he or she was bored, that child would immediately be offered Playmobil as an antidote. This was partly because boredom was frowned upon in our household, but it was mostly because I wanted an excuse to get out the Playmobil bin and get down on the floor.
There's something endearingly odd about Playmobil, the moulded plastic toy system that's been called Lego's weird cousin. Invented by German toy developer Hans Beck in 1974, its perpetually smiling figures come with little hands made for grabbing. Mostly they grab the countless interchangeable tools that crowd the Playmobil universe.
That's the genius of Playmobil. It offers imaginative free play that's almost all about work. And Playmobil doesn't just showcase the fun gigs, like astronaut and cowboy and zookeeper and dinosaur wrangler and knight. The company also has a line in necessary but unglamorous 9-to-5 jobs, like airport security screener and dental receptionist and hotel housekeeper. (The hotel housekeeping set comes with a cleaning cart, a vacuum, a dustpan and brush, a bin for dirty laundry, and "an array of cleaning products.")
Is this stern realism or wacky, subversive whimsy? Somehow it's both. And Playmobil's unlikely approach seems to work. While many of its toys come off as wilfully, hilariously un-child-like, Playmobil has sold over 2.7 billion plastic people in four decades, suggesting that kids are fascinated by this often mundane, workaday world.
Playmobil's offices have coffee machines and potted plants. The Playmobil police station includes colour-coded paperwork and institutional desks. You can get a port-a-potty add-on for your Playmobil construction site.
And it's not just that the company pays obsessive attention to detail. There seems to be an almost Marxist imperative to explore labour and class. The 1900 mansion series has a luxuriously ornate dining room, but it also has a laundry room, complete with wringer-washer, scrubbing board, drying rack and one very overworked maid. The 1900 park contains promenading ladies, but also a drunken homeless man being moved on by a mustachioed Prussian soldier.
Some of the play sets seem like dubious choices for small children. I mean, who is buying the tiny perfect Hazmat crew, whose job is to clean up toxic waste from spilled chemical barrels? Or the safe-cracking set, complete with crowbar and industrial butane torch, along with stolen currency? Crime is even made attractive: The two thieves wear cool striped shirts, leather jackets and knit caps, and they have face stubble, a look that occasionally shows up in Playmobil's male figures, especially among the convicts, barbarians and some of the more metrosexual pirates.
There are also sets that make Disney's "circle of life" notion seem wimpy, with toy tableaux that head perilously close to nature red in tooth and claw. You can pick up Playmobil vultures with carefully detailed carrion, for example, or a moose beset by a pack of wolves. Even city life can be cruel and arbitrarily dangerous in Playmobil land: A bicycle accident scenario is illustrated on one boxed set, which includes an ambulance and a medevac helicopter. ("Equipped with medical instruments for patient care. Gurney legs can fold and head rest is adjustable.")
Over four decades, Playmobil has developed certain lines and phased out others, and the rules have loosened. In recent years, there has been an influx of dragons and fairies and fantasy princesses.
But in the 1990s, when my son was small, the Playmobil philosophy was still fairly hardline. I remember a fellow mom telling me about a conversation with a Playmobil rep, who explained that the company only dealt with real-world subjects, either contemporary or historical. "What about the ghost in my son's medieval castle?" she asked. "That's not a ghost. It's a person in a ghost suit," she was told. And it was true: Take off the ghostly overlay, basically a plastic version of a white sheet, and you were left with a pale but undeniably corporeal Playmobil figure.
There's something wonderfully kooky about that kind of commitment. So, happy 40th birthday, Playmobil. Here's to toys that allow children to enter the mysterious realm of grown-up jobs, and make work into play.
And happy Mother's Day, especially to all those moms whose real-world labour involves picking up hundreds of small plastic toys. Maybe take some time to play with them, too. I know I did.