I primarily use Playmobil figures and toys to explore the Bible. Of course, other ‘small world’ toys are available, such as Duplo, Lego, plain wooden peg dolls or dolls. You can use dinosaurs, trains, teddies or breadsticks with edible eyes on them. They key is to use them in a playful, open-ended way, and to let everyone use them to explore.
I have my own pre-loved set of Playmobil figures, which I have collected specifically to share Bible stories with my children and in workshops and services. I haven’t bought any Bible Playmobil and, apart from the nativity set I invested in, I haven’t bought anything at full price or any sets. Buying pre-loved has given me a chance to acquire:
- Lots of general people who aren’t dressed as anything in particular. The old, simple-coloured ones are cheap and can be used as any Bible character. I also use figures dressed as contemporary people, as these help to build theological bridges between the Bible text and our own experience. When we played Jesus feeding the 5,000 for example, the contemporary people were the ones my children used to include themselves in the crowd (sitting with a big group of children and, bizarrely, Robin Hood and Maid Marian).
- Egyptian and Roman people and props. I find this helps me to do lots of Bible stories featuring these people groups (there are more than I first thought), as well as giving me ‘ancientworld- looking’ people. We often mix and match the hair and accessories to create the people we need. For example, we recently used one wise man with a golden cloak from the nativity set with a crown and long hair to create the Egyptian princess who found Moses in the bulrushes.
- Accessories or props such as baskets, lamps and other things that add to the ‘look’ of the ancient Middle East. There’s a great Egyptian tomb set, the tomb of which looks like a fab little house, so it has been used for loads of Bible stories that take place in or near people’s homes. Baskets that were first used in the feeding of the 5,000 also made good ‘luggage’ for the Israelites leaving Egypt, and one was the basket Moses was found in. Food and associated items such as wine glasses and plates work well in the Passover meal, Jesus’ last supper and other meals. We don’t use chairs or tables much, but we occasionally use chairs as thrones for kings such as one of the pharaohs or Herod. As always with children, less is more, and imagination plays a large part in our setups.
How do we use Playmobil to explore the Bible?
Act it out
I have been using an actual Bible to read Bible stories to my girls (now aged 5 and 7) for a while now, as well as using children’s Bible storybooks. Sometimes as I’m reading we act out the story using Playmobil as it unfolds. We also use audio Bibles (there are lots on biblegateway.com), which I play from my phone as this allows us all to take part in moving characters. I remember once doing the story of Elijah and the widow’s son. We used the Egyptian tomb piece as the widow’s house, which gave us a handy roof for the upstairs room. When I’d finished reading my girls asked me to carry on, which I was hesitant about as the next part is about Elijah and the prophets of Baal. But they insisted, so I carried on, and we even had the killing of all the false prophets (children, it turns out, can be far less sensitive to these stories than adults sometimes are).
It’s a great way for people to use their imaginations to play around with the story
Retell the story
As well as using it while reading the story, we often use the Playmobil while retelling the story in our own words. It gives us a visual and kinaesthetic way to connect with the words, as well as obvious ‘permission’ to use our imaginations to add details that might not be in the text – for example, where was Mary when the angel came to her? As we ‘act out’ the story we have to decide whether she was indoors or outside, at home or with friends. It helps us explore the text and sometimes rethink our assumptions based on other people’s interpretations.
Make a photobook
We make lots of photobooks, including ones of Bible stories. I especially enjoy this process for stories that are great for children but rarely feature in picture-book Bibles, such as King Josiah. I usually break up a Bible story so that it fits neatly over nine or ten pages of A5. I then pose the characters and take photos to go with the text on each page, which appear on the opposite page. I then upload the photos and create a book. There are various photobook apps you can use to make your own Bible storybook fairly cheaply.
Sometimes my children create the books, as they did for the story of Esther, where they worked together to create backdrops and props, to pose and take the photos. Then they each dictated their version of the story to me and I added it into the book. Their creations were such fun, and a brilliant way of exploring the story.
We have only recently started doing this, but I know some children are very good at producing stop-frame animation films of stories. It takes a bit of time, but the process of planning the scenes, characters and backdrops engages the imagination and creates a space where we can explore the story and find out what it means to us.
Respond to the story
Another technique I often use after exploring a Bible story for a while is to say: “I wonder where you might be in this story.” I’m not sure I’d have introduced this, but I remember my children using Playmobil to imagine this when we used the figures to explore Jesus feeding 5,000 people. I left the people out for them to play with after using them to tell the story, and I later found they had set up all the people in circles ready to receive the miraculous bread and fish. They had found two children who had similar hair to theirs and sat ‘themselves’ in a circle of children. Interestingly, their circle was one of about eight. All the other circles were made up of adults, and their circle was furthest away from where Jesus was giving out the bread and fish. I wondered whether this was a reflection of them feeling distant from Jesus or separated from the rest of the Christian community, but that’s a discussion for another time.
I often use Playmobil as one of my response stations after sharing a story. It’s a great way for people (adults and children) to use their imaginations to play around with the story, consider ‘what ifs’ and their place in it. For this I just set out a selection of characters and accessories that are not too specific to the story. This makes it open-ended, which lends itself to deeper exploration. What story might you share, and which small world set might you use?