Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences.Serve and return interactions make everyday moments fun and become second nature with practice.
By taking small moments during the day to do serve and return, you build up the foundation for children’s lifelong learning, behavior, and health—and their skills for facing life’s challenges.
Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention.
Is the child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving her arms and legs? That’s a serve. The key is to pay attention to what the child is focused on. You can’t spend all your time doing this, so look for small opportunities throughout the day—like while you’re getting him dressed or waiting in line
at the store. By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about a child’s abilities,interests, and needs. You’ll encourage her to explore and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.
Return the serve by supporting and encouraging.
You can offer comfort with a hug and gentle words, help him, play with him, or acknowledge him. You can make a sound or facial expression—like saying, “I see!” or smiling and nodding to let him know you’re noticing the same thing. Or you can pick up the object he’s pointing to and give it to him.
Supporting and encouraging rewards a child’s interests and curiosity. Never getting a return can actually be stressful for a child. When you return the serve, the child knows that his thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.