I’ll confess: I was never much of a Playmobil kid. I may have had a figurine or two (and, presumably, some sets to go with them) but honestly I can’t remember them and I no longer have them. I leaned toward Lego and other construction toys (anyone remember Construx?) and Playmobil just wasn’t really part of my fun equation.
Of course I’ve introduced my kids to Lego — they have a small collection (one set of Duplo blocks that my older daughter got when she was very small, and then a small pile of regular bricks and bits). And they do play with them quite a bit, but they also tend to dump out the entire bunch (on the thick-pile carpet), pick out a few things to play with, and then leave the rest scattered all over the place. This is, in my opinion, a terrible way to play with Lego. Particularly when I walk barefoot through the room.
Recently I was offered the chance to try out a few Playmobil sets, and I was curious: how would my daughters respond to them? They actually have a very nice Plan Toys wooden dollhouse with a family of dolls, kitchen and bedroom sets, and a little vegetable garden … and they rarely play with it. It usually sits in the corner, taking up a lot of space, and doesn’t get played with except when we have other kids over. My daughters — to my wife’s great dismay — have just never really taken to playing with dolls of any sort. So I was skeptical that Playmobil would really be much different. While we were at the toy store, I even showed them the Playmobil aisle to see what they thought of them. My younger daughter picked out an alligator for herself, but both of them were kind of “meh” about the idea of the sets.
Until the sets arrived.
Playmobil sent me two sets: the Pet Clinic (#5870) and the Barn With Silo (#5119). As you can see, my kids were pretty delighted before we even opened up the box — where did the “meh” go? We decided to try the Pet Clinic first.
The Pet Clinic doesn’t require a whole lot of assembly: you put lids and doors on things, snap the table and chairs together, but it’s pretty straightforward. Probably the most complicated piece was the desk, which only involves snapping on the two legs, inserting the drawers, and then putting on the front of the desk. The set includes four figures: a vet and an assistant, plus a mom and a child (presumably the customers). You also get a pile of animals: 3 cats, 2 dogs, 2 rabbits, 2 birds, and 3 hamsters (or guinea pigs — I can’t honestly tell the difference). There’s office furniture and a little ultrasound machine, and various pet homes. And then a lot of little bits and pieces like jars and trays and vet instruments in a little case.
The whole thing comes in a two-story building that reminds me a lot of the old Fisher-Price house (remember that?). It closes up with a little latch, and has a handle on the top for carrying. Unlike the Fisher-Price house, though, there aren’t any real openings for doors and windows — which means that pieces won’t fall out when you’re carrying it around. (Although it also means you can’t walk figures in and out of doors.)
My girls had a lot of fun, though I quickly found that they were more interested in being the animals than the people. They each picked some of the animals to be and left the people and furniture to the side, and they were having so much fun with it that they opted to skip bedtime stories in order to have a little extra play time. The next morning, when I got up, they had moved the whole set onto the top bunk of their bunkbed and were playing with it again.
But of course they’d already seen the farm set, which is an enormous box. They got the Pet Clinic put away and boxed up, and asked if we could open up the farm next.
For some reason, I hadn’t really considered how many more pieces there were in the Barn With Silo set before I opened it up and dumped it all out on the ground. Also, I didn’t realize that the instructions show you how the various parts are grouped in the box, so you don’t have to look through all of the bags to find the piece you need. (Unless, of course, you already pulled everything out of the box.)
As Jenny Williams mentioned before, there is actually quite a lot of assembly required — the Pet Clinic’s building is all in one piece, but you have to build the entire barn.
It’s certainly not as complex as building a Lego set — there are limited places for things to go — but it still took about an hour (with my daughters’ “help”) to get the whole thing put together. The bottleneck was putting in the little red connectors: They just snap in, but it’s much easier to use the little tool provided than your bare fingers. I let my kids help, but that meant taking turns with the tool, and it took a bit more effort and time on their part. Other things, like inserting fence posts into the right spots, were pretty easy. We did have one incident when my older daughter was fitting two walls together when she pinched her palm and had to take a break, so you’ll want to be aware of that if your kids are helping.
Once finished, the barn is an impressive set. There are pens for the cows with sliding gates and a little pasture with an electric fence. The pigs get a pen that includes a heat lamp and little doors that go out to another fenced pasture. There’s a barn loft with a claw on a pulley, and a place to store your shovel, pitchfork, and broom. And, of course, there’s lots of figurines: a man, woman, and child; 2 cows and 2 calves; 1 pig and 3 piglets; 3 cats; a rooster; a mouse; a bunch of birds.
My wife (who grew up on a farm) and I were both impressed with the level of detail that went into the set. One of my favorite details is the little swallow’s nest. We actually had a nest of these on our front porch back in Tribune, and I love that there’s a baby swallow with its yellow mouth wide open. The barn roof has some solar panels on it, and the electric fence has a little battery that hooks up to it. There’s a milking stool and a pail for hand-milking, but there’s also a small milking machine with two little milk cans. The pigs have a little feeding trough where you can pour the food into the top of the bucket and it spills out into the trough facing both sides of the pen. And speaking of the food…
… there’s the silo, filled with teeny plastic silage. It’s a pile of small plastic chips, sort of rounded triangles, and you get enough to fill the silo about halfway up. Trust me: that’s plenty. The bag was leaking already and then broke while I was trying to get it into the silo, and then my five-year-old accidentally knocked the entire silo over, spilling silage onto the barn itself and all over the carpet. Let me tell you: picking silage out of your carpet is time-consuming and difficult! It is pretty cool, though, to lower the spout on the silo and have the silage come pouring out, and I do like how it works with the pig trough. But we’ve since moved the entire site over to the hardwood floors, where the silage is at least easier to sweep up. (My kids informed me that the tiny broom works, in conjunction with a small piece of paper to serve as a dustpan.) One thing to note: when you put the spout back up, there is still a large handful of silage already in the base of the spout, so you’ll want to be careful to clear that out if you pick up the silo for any reason.
Me, I’m still a fan of Lego. But my kids are really digging the Playmobil sets, and as somebody who usually ends up stepping on tiny Lego studs, I have to admit that I’m glad to hold off on the Lego for a little longer. It does feel a little more directed and restricted, but it also lets them get into the role-playing more quickly when they don’t have to build out everything first. Also, I should note that Playmobil looks like it will take up a lot more space if you start building up a collection, particularly with these large buildings. While they do come apart, they’re not really designed to be taken down and reassembled each time you play with them. (Also, I’m really hoping the novelty will wear off a little bit so I can get back to reading The Search for WondLa to my kids. We’ve just hit Part 4, and I’m eager to finish it so I can start on the sequel, A Hero for WondLa.)
I don’t know if I’d recommend the Barn With Silo right away if you’re just getting started with Playmobil — it’s kind of an overwhelming amount to take in all at once — but it is certainly quite cool. I’m already eyeing the tractor, actually.
The Pet Clinic retails for $39.99 and the Barn With Silo is $139.99. For more about Playmobil, visit their website.
Photos by Jonathan Liu
This article, by Jonathan Liu, was originally published on Monday.