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Building serve and return interactions with your little one

Father having serve and return with his baby

“Change the beginning and you will change the whole story.” – Dr. Dimitri Christakis

During the first three years of life, your baby will develop 90% of their adult brain size. Dr. Shonkoff at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child calculates that more than 1 million connections are formed inside your little one’s brain every second. Early experiences, whether positive or negative, will be crucial in the wiring and pruning of these neural connections and are responsible for the foundation of stronger circuits.

How can you help shape your baby’s brain architecture and foster strong positive neural connections?

Serve and return interactions help shape your baby’s brain circuity. Much like a game of table ping pong, serve and return interactions take place in the back and forth actions between you and your little one. Your child serves the ball as they babbles, makes a facial expression, sound, or gesture that shows an interest in something and you return the serve by responding in a supportive way. Keep reading to learn more about serve and return interactions.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff and his team at the Center affirm that a healthy brain architecture depends on a solid foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses, and stable, responsive relationships with the caring adults around them. Babies come into this world depending upon their caregivers to help them make sense of what they experience. When your little one cries, babbles, or points to something and you respond appropriately with your words, physical and eye contact you help them feel heard and understood. This strengthens the neural connections inside their brain which support their communications and social skills. Every serve counts and, as you learn more about their interests, abilities and needs, you’ll continue fostering curiosity and strengthening the bond between you.

Lack of returns, inadequate care, being unreliable, or simply absent disrupts the physical and mental health of your little one. Constant absence of serve and return interactions acts as what Dr. Shonkoff refers to “a double whammy”. Not only does the brain doesn’t receive the proper neural stimulation it needs, but it also activates the stress response in the body, saturating the developing brain with harmful stress hormones. This can potentially compromise the development of your child’s executive functions, which are essential for the lifelong health and learning of your little one.


Harvard University Center on the Developing Child created this short video where you can learn more about serve and return interactions and how to find everyday moments to practice them. Kinedu collaborated with the Center by providing video footage and Spanish and Portuguese translations of the videos. We’re proud to partner with the Center in promoting serve and return across the world!

Visit our activity catalog to find 1800+ activities that can help you engage on everyday interactions and strengthen the bond between you and your little one. =)

Harvard Center on the Developing Child

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