Serve and Return: Positive interactions build strong brains

“Serve and Return” is a term first introduced by Harvard researchers. The term is used to describe the back and forth interactions between a child and a caring and responsive adult.

Research has proven that one of the most important experiences for young children are these “Serve and Return” interactions with important adults in their life.

Serve and Return is kind of like an imaginary tennis match between a child and a caregiver. Young children “serve” (reach out for interaction) by babbling, cooing, touching, using facial expressions and gestures.  Adults then respond (return the serve) by vocalizing and gesturing back at children (playing peek-a-boo or sharing a laugh).

Why is Serve and Return important?

Serve and return (or these back-and-forth exchanges) are the building blocks of children’s early brain development.

Research shows that when children are deprived of these types of interactions with a caring and responsive adult in their life, their brain architecture weakens and impairs the development of skills, behaviour and health.

Harvard University’s Centre for the Developing Child lays out the “5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return”

This how-to video from Harvard University breaks down serve and return into 5 steps and features adults and young children doing each step together.

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

Pay attention to what your child is doing such as pointing, cooing or smiling. This is called a serve.

2. Return the serve by supporting and encouraging

Return and acknowledge the serve by giving a hug, smiling back or repeating the noise your baby just made.

3. Give it a name!

Name what your child is seeing, doing or feeling.

For example, if your baby points to an apple, you can say “it’s an apple”. This helps to make important language connections in the brain.

4. Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth

The most important thing to remember is to wait. Give your child time to respond before you give another return.

5. Practice endings and beginnings

Observe your child for cues that they are done or finished with the activity. They may be ready to move onto something else.

Serve and return interactions take practice. Take time everyday to practice serve and return because social interaction is the most important kind of stimulation a young child needs for a lifetime of healthy development!

Click here to download a PDF version of Harvard University’s
“5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return”

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