“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.
• 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.
• 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