How Parents Can Up Their Game and Put ‘Serve and Return’ Into Everyday Interactions with Children

Yesterday we explained Serve and Return, highlighting the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child explanation, “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.”

So how, exactly, can parents integrate Serve and Return into everyday interactions with their children?

Harvard offers the following tips:

  • 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.“
  • 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.”
  • Give it a name! “When you return a child’s serve by naming what she is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in her brain, even before she can talk or understand your words.”
  • Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth. “Every time you return a serve, give the child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick (from the child to you and back again) or go on for many turns.”
  • Practice endings and beginnings. “Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, pick up a new one, or turn to look at something else. Or they may walk away, start to fuss, or say, ‘All done!’”

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