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serve and return skill child development parenting
“Serve and return” is about the everyday, back and forth interactions you have with your kids. It’s the practice of noticing and responding to their cues with eye contact, words, a hug, or other easy actions. These show kids that they are seen and heard, they build neural connections, and strengthen kids’ brains!

Notice the Serve
• Are your kids looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? That’s a serve. Look for small opportunities throughout the day to pay attention to what your kids are focused on – like while you’re getting them dressed or waiting in line at the store.
• By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about your kids’ abilities, interests, and needs.

Return the Serve
• You can offer comfort with a hug and gentle words, help your kids and play with them, or simply acknowledge them with a sound or facial expression, a smile or a nod.
• Your support rewards your kids’ interests and curiosity. Returning a serve lets them know their thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.

Give it a Name
• When you return a serve by naming what a kid is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in their brain, even before they can talk or understand your words. You can name anything – a person, a thing, an action, or a feeling.
• Naming what kids are focused on helps them understand the world around them.

Take Turns
• Every time you return a serve, give your kids a chance to respond. Kids need time to form their responses. By waiting, you’re giving them time to develop their own ideas and build their confidence and independence.
• Taking turns also helps kids learn self-control and how to get along with others.

Practice Transitions
• Kids signal when they’re ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, pick up a new one, turn to look at something else, or walk away.
• When you can find moments like this for kids to take the lead through a transition, you support them in exploring their world, giving them confidence to go at their own pace.

Adapted from the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University