Early Childhood Development: Serve and Return

Early Childhood Development: Serve and Return

Serve and Return is not just a term used in ping-pong, tennis or volleyball as one may think or as we may have heard in sports news. In the parenting world, it is also the back-and-forth between a child and his or her parent or caregiver.  Imagine your little one lovingly gazes up at you making eye contact (serve), you look back (return). This is followed by facial expressions and gestures from your little one (serve), you repeat back with facial expressions and gestures (return). Following this, your little one makes raspberries or touches your arm (serve), you return with a gentle touch or caress of their cheek (return).

The back-and-forth of the real life serve-and-return is one of the profoundest and simplest steps in supporting healthy brain development in early childhood.  Easy and low cost. No gadget or toys or electronics required. Just the child and the caregiver and a few seconds, if not a few minutes.

How does experience build brains?

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University states that, “serve and return interactions shape brain architecture”.  Architecture?  Are we constructing a building? Not exactly, but in the brain, it kind of is.

Experience is the language of the brain. It is how the brain organizes itself.  This process is ongoing throughout life, especially in the first three years. In these early years, imagine the concrete cement foundation of a skyscraper.  And just like a skyscraper is built in stages, a baby’s brain is also built in stages.  The serve and return technique is like the sturdy cement that is ready to be laid down and set.

Each real life serve and return interaction gives the brain the positive stimulation it needs and helps deter the body’s stress response.  The body’s stress response can be like a flood of stress hormones that can be harmful for the brain, if it is constant and chronic over an extended period of time.  Real life serve and return interactions are a no cost method of deterring the body’s response to stress.

We all have our own way of serving and returning, this video of a father and toddler talking on the couch is just one example.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

This probably goes without saying, but we need to say it anyway.  Relationships are important.  So important that they are considered growth promoting and the brain is designed to develop in relationship with others.  The brain needs to receive information to take shape and children need this information from their adult partners.  This isn’t about being the perfect parent or caregiver.  It is about being the “good enough parent”, as in being responsive, adapting to your child’s needs and showing empathy.  The “good enough parent” will hit the mark one-third of the time, misses and recovers the mark one-third of the time, and totally misses the mark one-third of the time.  We aren’t looking for hitting the mark every time.

Let’s be real, not only is this unrealistic, but this is also impossible.  The reality is that it is a mixture of all three.  It helps to know that missing and recovering helps develop the child’s brain as this sends messages that we are doing our best and making repairs.  And it is doubly important to note that occasional lapses where we miss it completely does not harm the development of your child’s brain.  We always have the opportunity to repair that missed opportunity.

The Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University recommends five steps for brain-building serve and return.

The next time you see a ping-pong tournament, tennis match or volleyball game, remember that we all have the opportunity of building healthy brains in our children’s early development.  These sport matches may last for an hour or more, but the real life serve-and-return takes just a few seconds, if not a few minutes.

If you have concerns about your child’s early developmental journey, contact Lone Star Circle of Care at 887-800-5722 to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider who can refer you to a Lone Star Circle of Care Behavioral Health provider. We are here to help!

Blog post written by Audrey Rodrigues, LCSW 
Lone Star Circle of Care at Cedar Park


The Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University