Beyond its obvious associations with Nadal and Federer, “serve and return” is also a way for parents and young children to interact. As a critical part of infancy, the technique aids in early childhood learning and development.
In this article, we’ll look at what the serve and return is, how it impacts learning early on, and the strategies parents can use to deploy it properly.
What Is Serve and Return and Why Is It Used?
Coined by a research team at Harvard, the phrase “serve and return” refers to the back-and-forth interactions between children and adults. Much like a game of tennis, one person “serves” — by offering a sound, glance, word, or gesture — and the other “returns.”
Although this form of conversation isn’t often used among adults in everyday life, the serve and return is a common form of communication among adults and infants. The interactions boost cognitive growth in babies and support the brain’s budding development. Serve and return also contribute to babies’ physical, mental and emotional health; the positive stimulation lowers stress response and eliminates harmful stress hormones from the brain.
How Responsive Interactions Impact Early Childhood Learning
Far more than just cute exchanges between parent and baby, responsive interactions support the development of the infant brain circuitry and help stimulate learning.
Fun fact: 70 percent of the brain’s development occurs within the first three years of a child’s life. That means the constant use of serve and return is essential to building a strong foundation for success in school — and beyond.
What Does a Serve and Return Interaction Look Like?
Sounds and facial expressions are key elements of any serve and return interaction, which might look something like this:
Your baby looks at you; you smile. Then your baby smiles back, which makes you laugh, which in turn makes your baby laugh. You ask, “You think it’s funny when mommy laughs?” Naturally, your baby laughs again. You extend a finger toward the baby, who grabs it.
Two other serve and return activities include open-ended engagement and pretend play.
Telling children what to do is not enough stimulation for healthy brain development. Instead, ask open-ended questions — it’s a great way to launch into a serve and return interaction.
If your child draws a picture of both parents, for instance, try engaging with them — beyond just complimenting the artwork, of course. Ask why they drew what they did, or probe about what’s happening in the picture. This creates an opportunity for richer, more meaningful dialogue that veers into all sorts of interesting, funny, creative directions.
Older toddlers (say, 2 and up) love pretend play; they might want to “feed” their doll, “cook” dinner or give their toys a “bath.” Take turns and engage with them as they model everyday activities.
Early Childhood Developmental Stages: How Parents Can Optimize Their Baby’s Development
Aside from responsive, nurturing, and positive interactions and experiences, the following activities help boost cognitive development in babies:
Play Fun Activities
Reading and singing is an engaging, fun, and easy way to help babies develop. Even simple games — tummy time, peek-a-boo — can be hugely beneficial.
Think of mealtimes as an opportunity to supply your baby’s brain with the building blocks they need to grow and develop. Eye contact, smiling, and skin-to-skin contact during feedings are all shown to benefit brain development.
Skip the Fancy Toys
Be wary of electronic toys that claim to be “educational,” and try avoiding screens until your child turns 2. Instead, focus on allowing your baby to actively engage with you and the other important people around them.
The Importance of Positive Interaction As Part of Toddler Curriculum
Your child’s day-to-day environment is vital to their learning, and toddlers need regular opportunities to participate in activities that teach new skills and fine-tune existing ones.
That’s why it’s so important to integrate positive interaction into any toddler curriculum. Vivvi’s teachers help children reach their developmental milestones through carefully curated activities, toys, and books. They’re there to encourage babbling, new and familiar words, and all forms of expressive language and interaction.