Waisman Center–Birth To 3 Program
What Natural Environments Means to Me
By Beth Swedeen, Parent Facilitator, Waisman Center Early Intervention Program, Wisconsin Personnel Development Project, Madison, WI
Many Birth to 3 providers and families in Wisconsin are concerned and curious about the renewed attention to "natural environments" that resulted from the re-authorization of IDEA in 1997. Does this mean Birth to 3 as most families know it will have to change? Maybe, in some instances. But I believe the heart and soul of the program will remain intact, and maybe even grow stronger.
As a parent who cleaned her house three times a
week for more than two years in
anticipation of home visits from Birth to 3 providers, let me tell you I can see both the positives and negatives of home-based services. This may not be for every family -- so options are important. To me, the concept of "natural environments" is not an issue of service location, but goes to the heart of the philosophy driving the service delivery system. Rather than focusing on where services should be provided, I would like to focus on how they are provided. I believe natural environments can embed education and therapies into a family's natural routines throughout their day. That way, families can more fully enjoy time with their child, while maximizing the child's ability to participate in activities of the family's choosing.
So, for the family who can't make it through a
trip to the grocery store without a
meltdown, it may include sensory strategies and behavioral tips to make the trip less stressful. For another family, it might include a trip to the McDonald's play land for some large motor work and ideas on how a child with motor problems can use the games and equipment there. For our family, who love being active, some direct instruction during parent-tot swim lessons was a wonderful way for our whole family to enjoy the pool. My daughter's improved strength and balance from swim lessons was a natural by-product.
At the heart of embedding services into natural
routines is a caring team that really gets to know each family and communicates
openly about ideas and strategies. That team includes a creative and knowledgeable
service coordinator, who can make suggestions for community opportunities
and activities that some families may consider impossible because they
don't know quite how to involve their child who has extra needs.
Most parents love the sense of community they get from connecting with other parents of children with special needs. Parent groups are an important support to families that can and should be part of Birth to 3. They don't necessarily have to be tied into a location or specific child interventions. Play groups and other opportunities for parents and children to connect are important, too. The challenge is to expand them into community groups that can include children with typical development.
If all this sounds like it would take a lot of work to implement; it has been and it will be into the next millennium. But I have worked with enough Birth to 3 providers to know that they are the most innovative, creative, caring and passionate advocates of children and families in this state. If anyone is up to the challenge, it's the folks in Birth to 3.