Playmobil: Forty years young

Playmobil might not have the box-office appeal of its plastic peer Lego, but after four decades, it's still a big hit with children – as well as their parents.

Along with Bagpuss, the Early Learning Centre and Rubik's Cube, Playmobil, the toy company that created those stocky plastic people with the hat-like plastic hair, turns 40 this year. That's right, 40. I'm afraid to say that if you played with its figures when they first launched, you are getting on a bit.

Playmobil is still making the same miniature scenes as it always has, with pirate ships, cowboys, soldiers and secret agents, so if you have children, or young relatives, you can share your old toys with them (or play with new ones and show them the ropes when it comes to providing sound effects for Wild West battles).

Hans Beck was the designer employed by the German toymaker Horst Brandstätter, who came up with the idea in 1967 for a play system where all the pieces would be interchangeable and all to scale (1:24), with a 7 ½cm figure as its focus.

Three ranges were launched at the Nuremburg toy fair the following year: construction workers, Native Americans and knights, and they are still made today. Now, though, there are 18 different "play worlds" but if you still have any pieces left from the set you had as achild, you'll find they'll still fit exactly with the modern-day sets. A 40-year-old knight can wield a modern sword and a 40-year-old cow can still graze on today's plastic Playmobil grass.

Jax Blunt, 43, is one of the elite members of the Playmobil fan club, known in the Playmobil world as a "superfan". She tests Playmobil's latest toys and also retains fond memories of playing with them as a child. It's no surprise, then, that her daughter Romy Marchant, four, is hooked. She enjoys the fact that all the Playmobil scenarios are grounded in reality. "It looks like real things," she says, "and I can make my toys move and jump around when I am playing."

Her current favourite is the Easter set that comes with a miniature set of eggs, a bunny and a tiny paint palette with little pots of paint the size of a child's fingertip. There are none of the big-budget Star Wars or Harry Potter products that rival Lego might go in for, nor, it has to be said, has it the same success at the box office. Remember The Secret of Pirate Island? No, I thought the straight-to-DVD film might have passed you by. Instead of Hollywood hijinks, Playmobil's scenes are totally timeless rather than tie-in based.

"Playmobil is based on everyday themes with things that exist in the everyday world. This helps to teach imaginative play skills" says Jamie Dickinson, brand and marketing manager at Playmobil.

Blunt agrees. "I've always liked them. There's something about how the arms come down from the body and they are wide on the waist, and the heads aren't huge. They're properly in proportion. As kids, we used to go to a particular farm with my grandparents, there was a place in Derbyshire they used to take us. It had a big awning so we used to play under the awning with the safari [set] when it was wet and when it was sunny, we used to help the farmers with the milking."

Becky Gower, 26, is another superfan who blogs about her children, Dillon, three, and Archie, 14 months. She thinks that the 40-year-old toys are a hit with her young children because, aside from being virtually unbreakable, kids still love to take part in interactive play.

"I like that there are no buttons and no noise and it's the same thing it was 20 years ago," says Gower. "All my memories are of being at the end of the garden with blankets over our heads and playing with the toys. We'd crash planes in the 'jungle', which was the long grass. My mum has still got the Playmobil plane from back in the Eighties, and when my boys go to stay with her, they love playing with it."

For little toys, they've managed to stick around to hit a big birthday.

Playmobil is hosting a year of special events for its 40th anniversary. For more information, go to playmobil.co.uk

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