5 steps to practice ‘serve and return’ with your child

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.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls these interactions “serve and return.” 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.

Here are 5 steps to practice serve and return with your child:

1. 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 those little 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 them dressed or waiting in line at the store.

WHY? By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about children’s abilities, interests, and needs. You’ll encourage them to explore and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.

2. Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention

You can offer children comfort with a hug and gentle words, help them, play with them, or acknowledge them. You can make a sound or facial expression—like saying, “I see!” or smiling and nodding to let a child know you’re noticing the same thing. Or you can pick up an object a child is pointing to and bring it closer.

WHY? Supporting and encouraging rewards a child’s interests and curiosity. Never getting a return can actually be stressful for a child. When you return a serve, children know that their thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.

3. Give it a name!

When you return a serve by naming what a child is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in their brain, even before the child can talk or understand your words. You can name anything—a person, a thing, an action, a feeling, or a combination. If a child points to their feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet!”

WHY? When you name what children are focused on, you help them understand the world around them and know what to expect. Naming also gives children words to use and lets them know you care.

4. 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.

Waiting is crucial. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they’re learning so many things at once. Waiting helps keep the turns going.

WHY? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give children time to develop their own ideas and build their confidence and independence. Waiting also helps you understand their needs.

5. 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!” When you share a child’s focus, you’ll notice when they’re ready to end the activity and begin something new.

WHY? When you can find moments for children to take the lead, you support them in exploring their world—and make more serve and return interactions possible.

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.

Adapted from research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and from resources developed by Filming Interactions to Nurture Development. Used with courtesy of Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—making education research accessible to practitioners and families.

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care. Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article. You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance. Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.