Practicing serve and return with your child

dad playing with his baby boy

It is not random that the concept of serve and return has become a favorite for researchers, psychologists, and parents. Let us dive into what it means, its importance for early childhood development, and how you can leverage everyday activities with your little one as opportunities for practicing serve and return interactions.

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, serve and return is a helpful concept that describes the process in which caregivers engage in a responsive and holding manner with a child’s experience of the internal and external world. In simpler words, serve and return are back and forth interactions between a parent and a child, where the adults share the little one’s focus of attention and help them make sense of stimuli and put it into words. The stimuli can be a surprising sound, an activity or game you are playing, an emotion, or anything that a child is interested in and focused on.

The Center recommends following these 5 easy steps when practicing serve and return with your child:


1. Notice their focus of attention, and share it.

If your little one is pointing at something, making a funny face, dancing, sharing a drawing, or expressing an emotion, that is a serve. Look for opportunities during the day to notice these serves and pay attention to what your child is focused on. Don’t worry if you missed some of them, you can’t spend all your time doing this. However, shopping at the supermarket, meal prepping, or waiting somewhere are good opportunities to share interactions with your little one.


2. Return your child’s serve by being supporting and encouraging.

Help them see that you are acknowledging what they are interested in, by smiling, nodding, engaging with the object, playing, or using gentle words like “I see!”. This support and encouragement will let them know that their thoughts and feelings are important and worth understanding.

3. Name it!

When you return a serve, name what a child is feeling, doing, or seeing. You will be building important language connections in your child’s brain, even if they are still too young to speak. This is a great exercise for linking the world through words, as well as for strengthening your relationship.

4. Keep going! Take turns and wait.

After you return your child’s serve, give them a chance to respond. This back and forth can take time or be really quick, but it is crucial that you give your child time to form a response; so be patient and wait as long as is needed. This will also provide good practice for your child when taking turns and exerting self-control.

5. Practice endings and beginnings together.

Your child will naturally signal to you when they are ready to do a new activity, so allow them to take the initiative and lead the timing of these moments. For example, they might let go of a toy, change the focus of attention, or pick up a new object. If you are sharing the focus, it is easier to notice when it’s time to end the game and begin something new.

You can find more practical information on serve and return from our friends at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child by following this link to their webpage:

Related Articles

how to spend quality time with family
Social & Emotional

How to Spend Quality Time with Your Family

Quality time with family is essential for strengthening emotional bonds and developing social and emotional skills in children. However, we

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Do you want to receive amazing content like this for free?

Subscribe to our newsletter and join Kinedu’s community