Playmobil Taught My Bilingual Child to Read (ok, not really, but it is helping)

by Corey · 5 comments

Corey's son (age 5) reading his beloved Playmobil catalog (Jan. 2007)

By Corey Heller
This post originally appeared in 2007 on the blog An American Between Worlds.

I would like to officially thank you, Playmobil, (and other toy manufacturers), for your free color catalogs which we pick up at numerous toy stores around town. I hate to admit it, but your catalogs have helped my son become an avid reader.

My oldest son (5 years old) simply loves looking through toy catalogs. Right now, his favorite is the Playmobil catalog that he picked up from a toy store a few months ago. He sits for hours perusing each page in detail, announcing which things he will want to have in the very near future, and desperately trying to understand what is included in each set.

The fantastic thing about these catalogs is not that they are making my child salivate for boat-loads of toys, but that they have actually been helping my son learn to read! Or, better said, helping him want to know how to read.

He wants to know what each section says and the name for each item. Yes, I know that the real reason that he does this is because he can then say, “Mama, I want to have the ‘Zoo Superset’ for my birthday!”

I do feel torn about this. On the one hand I feel like I am completely encouraging consumerism. But then I tell myself, “This is Playmobil we are talking about here. Not the latest gun catalog.”

Yet, shouldn’t we be focusing on good literature that will expand his mind and further his horizons? How about Shakespeare? Or George Eliot? Or Thomas Hardy?

I ponder this as I watch my son work with his understanding of phonics to sound out the word “Superset” all on his own and realize that I do actually kind of love Playmobil. I love them in a kind of slightly skewed, superficially endearing way. I just can’t help myself.

The additional benefit of the Playmobil catalogs is that they list a specific toy number for each item! Talk about an added bonus! Phonics and math all in one place! Can you see me salivating as I write this? This means that when my son points to something that he wants, I can say, “Ah yes, interesting. So, what is the name of the item? And what is the item number?” Can you see my big, big grin?

No, I don’t say he will get all the toys that he tells me about and writes down. I make it very clear that he is welcome to put together a list of the items that he likes and that we will talk about each of them later. I tell him that when his birthday gets closer we can talk about the items again to get an idea of which he’d most like as a gift. Of course, later he ends up forgetting the details of our discussion all together and moves onto other things in life. But the very seriously work of reading and writing words and numbers has already taken place.

Just a few minutes ago he asked me, “Mama, what does this say?” I told him that I couldn’t come right at this moment and asked if he could try to and sound it out and tell me what it says. So, word by word he sounded out: “The… new… tractor… on… the… farm.” He looked to me for confirmation, I nodded, and then we smiled at one another. He repeated it again, “The new tractor on the farm!” and then went on to the next page. He was beaming from ear to ear, proud of having sounded it out all on his own.

Perhaps Playmobil isn’t Shakespeare (ok, it isn’t even close, I know). And perhaps my son is simply feeding his bottomless pit of Playmobil desires which can never be fully met. But right now I don’t really care. My son is 5 years old and has basically taught himself to read. We have many more years to focus on literature. I’ll find a way to help make Catcher in the Rye an exciting experience for him.

Did you notice that the two nouns in the sentence are capitalized? Did Playmobil USA do that on purpose or is it a carry-over from the original catalog in German where nouns are capitalized? Isn't that fascinating!

In the meantime, just look at that page with words surrounded by sunflowers and bursting with yellow! Who wouldn’t want to sound out those words. They look simply delicious!

So, I say thank you Playmobil for helping the world of my son’s bursting literacy. I think that you and I will be friends for a very long time. I owe you one.

I do have one complaint, however. Is there any way that you can make your toys just a little less dang expensive!? My son has already requested the whole Zoo, Farm, Viking and Castle collections… and that is just today. Tomorrow he’ll have a new list. I’m delighted that he can read but I am realizing that I now need to prepare myself better for the gut-wrenching disappointment that comes from reading your catalogs.

Now that I think about it, maybe this whole reading thing wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe I should hide that Playmobil catalog that we have in German? Is my son’s biliteracy worth it?

Postscript: This post was written in Jan. 2007 when my oldest son was 5 years old. He is now 9 and still loves to read toy catalogs. In fact, we have a whole basket full of them now that his siblings have joined in this favorite past time. I was just now informed by my oldest son (while he read this post over my shoulder) that his favorite toy catalog is no longer Playmobil (sheesh, Mama) but Lego.

I am wondering if there any Shakespeare toy catalogs out there with big yellow sunflowers and lots of primary colors? Anyone? Please!

Do your children enjoy reading through toy catalogs? What are their favorites? Have you been able to find catalogs in your home language? How do you feel about your children spending hour upon hour looking through them?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maureen July 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm

We’re not reading yet, but we go through quite a number of Playmobil catalogs! We “read” them as bedtime stories, which end up being very creative going from one themed page to another.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:13 am

I love the idea of “reading” the catalogs as bedtime stories. I can totally imagine how fun that must be! I’m sure my son would much rather read them as bedtime stories than the annoying “literature” that I pick out. 😉


3 Beth Ortuño May 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm

From what I have read recently “they” are now actively encouraging that kids read anything that appeals to them. Let’s face it — the kids who don’t gravitate naturally to “literature” are often the exact kids that benefit from some gentle adult pushing them into reading. Reading is reading and the more enjoyable it is for the child the more it will become a go-to activity for them.
My stepson formerly could barely be coerced into reading anything at all. Not since I got him a subscription to the Lego magazine. It looks like a comic book. It’s really just pure promotion of all the different Lego sets. Whatever. He reads it and re-reads it until it’s falling apart. He stacks them carefully on the bookshelf and actually will TURN OFF a video game, go over and pick up a “magazine”. He’s reading.


4 Dominick May 4, 2016 at 8:23 pm

Don’t worry,

I have gun catalogs as well as toy catalogs on my table. The kids always go for the toy catalogs.


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