Recently I was priveledged to read this wonderful review by an Occupational Therapist colleague of mine. The reviewer, Elsabé Zeeman, has a private practice in Cape Town, South Africa, working with children who have sensory processing and motor development delays.
This is the time of the year when we are thinking about family and what presents to give to our children. Once you have read this reveiw by Elsabé Zeeman, you will want to get a copy and read it. You will want your child to enjoy it as you did when you were young; BUT you will also want to re-read it yourself, to learn all the lessons on sensory processing and how powerful it is in our everyday lives.
Read and enjoy:
A book review by Elsabé Zeeman: HEIDI by Johanna Spyri
About two decades ago I watched the animated series of Heidi on TV. Recently I have read the book in the original language (German) and it was an eye opener to me, because now I was able to look at Heidi’s story from a sensory integration perspective. Since Heidi is an autobiographical story, the author managed to describe the characters so vividly with all their sensory issues, although the sensory things are not mentioned as such – sensory integration was not widely known or described and definitely very seldom understood and accommodated in Johanna Spyri’s life time(1827 – 1901).
In the beginning of the story, the orphan Heidi arrives at her grandfather’s hut in the Alpine mountains as a five year old sensory seeker and possibly also ADHD. Although furious in the beginning about having a new resident in his home, her grandfather soon became attached to
her. Her grandfather was possibly also a sensory seeker, as ordinary stimulation was not enough for him – he spent his youth traveling, partying and wasting money and gambled away the farm he inherited. He then joined the army and went to Napels. More than a decade later he returned to his area of birth with a son and a lot of gossip surrounding him. Rejected by the community and his relatives, he withdrew himself into the mountains where he lived a hermit’s life with his goats, making a living as a cheese maker.
Life on the “Alm” (meadow-land in the Alpine mountains) suited Heidi like a glove. When she woke up in the morning, she would rush down the stairs getting outside where she would wash herself in the cool well water absorbing all the mountain sounds and views. The rustle of the
wind in the large fir trees was like music in her ears. She could not get enough of everything and was constantly looking for mountain birds, animals, flowers and insects, playing with the milk goats and cuddling them and enjoyed all the different aromas and colours of the plants as well as the colour changes of the distant mountains during different times of the day and different times of the year. She almost never stopped asking questions about everything she became aware of and her grandfather did not mind explaining everything to her. In addition she could regulate herself by running around, climbing the mountain, having the whole of the mountain area as her playground.
Because of her pleasant nature and because she was always discovering something interesting, Heidi became much appreciated company to the low registration Geissen-Peter (the goat-Peter). Every morning Heidi would go with him taking the goat herds up the mountain to the areas where the goats used to graze and drink water from the mountain streams.
After a few years of sheer heaven, Heidi was removed by her aunt from the mountains as abruptly as she had been left there. She was brought to Frankfurt to be company for the sickly and apparently paralysed girl, Klara Sesemann.
Klara, whose mother died shortly after her birth, had been a very sickly infant.
Klara’s father was a businessman and had to travel away from home often and therefore Frau Rottenmeier had been employed to run the household and take care of Klara. Due to Klara’s
sickliness, Miss Rottenmeier coddled her as something very fragile, depriving her of almost every vestibular and proprioceptive stimulus. Klara, as well as everyone in the household, believed that she would never be able to walk. She managed to sit by herself and because of her intelligence, she also learned to read and write. In the absence of fresh air and exercise, she had a poor appetite and remained prone to infections.
In the Sesemann mansion Heidi found herself now in sensory poor surroundings, everything clinically clean, neat and organised by the very sensory sensitive Miss Rottenmeier.
To run a household for the motherless, sickly girl, Klara, suited Miss Rottenmeier perfectly. Klara could be placed in a room like a piece of furniture and there she would remain, not
running around nor messing around like a normal child would. Now Miss Rottenmeier’s world was turned completely upside down by this new arrival in the Sesemann household.
“Goodness of fit” was not in Heidi’s favour. Miss Rottenmeier could not appreciate nor understand Heidi’s constant engaging into something, never walking and always running, in her haste bumping against something, knocking something over, taking into the streets and bringing animals into the mansion. So Miss Rottenmeier implemented severe restrictions on Heidi’s behaviour in an attempt to restore serenity in the household. Klara, on the other hand, enjoyed Heidi’s company very much and soon could not imagine life without her.
Now Heidi was also to start her school education. Although intelligent, she could not learn to read or write. No matter how hard he tried, the low registration and ADD Herr Kandidat
(the teacher who home schooled the children) could not get Heidi interested in letters as representatives of sounds. Instead she would associate the image of the letters with animals or
birds and she would pay much more attention to what she thought of or what she remembered of the mountain world, than to what she was supposed to learn.
Klara’s grandmother came to the temporary rescue when she paid a visit to the children. She seemed to understand Heidi to some extent. The grandmother broke a few of Miss Rottenmeier’s rules and managed to meet Heidi on her level according to her sensory needs and her interests. In this way she got Heidi interested in reading and miraculously (at least Miss Rottenmeier and Mr Kandidat regarded it as a miracle) she learned to read and write within a few days and the book the grandmother gave to Heidi, became her most precious
After the grandmother left, the situation in the Sesemann household became unbearable for Heidi under the autocratic rule of miss Rottenmeier. Heidi cried a few times when she read in the book about mountains and animals. As Miss Rottenmeier could not stand the crying, she forbade Heidi to cry. This had been the last straw and emotionally Heidi went into withdrawal, repression, depression and eventually somnambulism. Fortunately the Sesemann family doctor realised what was going on and he prescribed her return to her grandfather in the mountains as the only possible remedy.
Back at her mountain home, Heidi was like a fish that was finally dropped back into the water.
She could not stop talking about all the wonderful things she had missed so terribly and was now able to experience once more.
On visiting Heidi in the mountains, Klara was exposed to a lot of vestibular and proprioceptive stimulation. Heidi’s grandfather (who soon suspected that Klara was not really paralyzed) carried Klara around and encouraged her to use her legs and bear weight on them and, most importantly, in this sensory rich world she became motivated to move and to walk. Her
appetite improved, she built up muscle strength and endurance and eventually she managed to walk.
This is an enjoyable book, not only because of the characters with differences in sensory modulation, but also because it is a story about human relations, relation with God and about understanding and appreciating people who are different.
About Johanna Spyri (From: “Yearling Classic”-edition of Heidi)
In 1827 Johanna Heusser, a doctor’s fourth child, was born in a little
Swiss village near Zurich.
She never lived anywhere else and in 1881 published the heavy
Like Heidi’s, her primary education was not a success, and she eventually
left the village school and was sent to study with the pastor.
In time she married Bernhard Spyri, Zurich’s
town clerk, and had a son.
Johanna Spyri’s love of the countryside and the flowers and animals
around her are obvious on every page she wrote, and her tender heart endeared
her to all who knew her. Even Heidi, her first book, was written to
raise money for war relief.
Tragically, both her son and her husband predeceased her, and Mrs Spyri
was left alone to write the many books that succeeded Heidi
and that dealt again with village life and the glorious mountains that
surrounded her until her death in 1901.
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