Adapted from research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and from resources developed by Filming Interactions to Nurture Development.
When adults react and respond to young children’s babbles, gestures, and cries, they are doing more than providing good, nurturing care. They're actually laying the groundwork for children's future growth and development — helping to build the neural connections in the brain that support communication and social skills.
Ordinary back-and-forth interactions between a caregiver and child — called "serve and return" — can shape brain architecture in powerful ways, creating a strong foundation for future learning. Here are five simple ways for parents, childcare providers, and early educators to practice these interactions.
1. Notice What Grabs Your Child's Attention
Is your child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving her arms and legs? Pay attention to what she is focused on. Look for small opportunities throughout the day — while getting dressed, or waiting in line at the store — to share these moments.
Why? By noticing her “serves,” you’ll learn a lot about your child’s abilities, interests, and needs. You’ll encourage her to explore, and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.
2. Respond with Support
Return the serve by responding to your child. Offer comfort with a hug and gentle words, offer help, or acknowledge what he's doing. You can make a sound or facial expression — saying, “I see!” or smiling and nodding to let him know you’re noticing the same thing. Pick up the object he’s pointing to and give it to him.
Why? Your responses reward a child’s interests and curiosity. When you respond with encouragement to his actions, he knows that his thoughts and feelings are heard and understood. Never getting a response can actually be stressful for a child.
3. Name It
When you return a child’s serve, name what she is seeing, doing, or feeling. This interaction can form important language connections in her brain, even before she can talk or understand your words. If a child points to her feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet!”
Why? When you name what a child is focused on, you help her understand the world around her and learn what to expect. You give her words she can use herself.
4. Keep It Going, Take Turns
After you return the serve, give your child a chance to respond. He may repeat the same noise or action, or make a different one. The volley can be quick (from the child to you and back again) or can last for many turns. But waiting is crucial, since children need time to form their responses.
Why? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give the child time to develop his ideas and build his confidence and independence. Waiting helps you understand his needs, too.
5. Practice Endings and Beginnings
Children will let you know when they are done or are ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, turn to look at something else, walk away, or say “All done!” It’s okay when this happens. Watch your child to see what your next shared point of focus will be.
Why? When you can find moments for a child to take the lead, you support her in exploring her world — and you make more serve-and-return interactions possible.
Simple serve-and-return interactions make everyday moments fun and enriching. By taking ordinary moments during the day to play serve and return, you build the foundation for children’s lifelong learning, good behavior, and good health — and build their skills for facing life’s challenges.
Illustrations: Wilhelmina Peragine