Play ‘serve and return’ with your child

The interplay promotes brain development, long-term growth

Carolyn Smallwood

Did you know making faces and smiling at your baby, responding to gestures, or playing “peek-a-boo” during the first, crucial years of life have a profound effect on your baby’s overall growth, brain development and educational achievement?  Your playful interactions, which may seem insignificant to you, actually are helping to develop the building blocks for your baby’s brain. They help form the neurological connections that establish the cognitive and emotional skills children need later in life.

Your back-and-forth play with your baby is called a “serve” and “return.” Your baby “serves” by babbling or making a gesture. You “return” by talking to your baby and smiling, or pointing to a specific object and saying its name.

Here’s how “serve” and “return” works in the development of your baby’s language: Your baby babbles or gestures, and you respond by saying, “Momma” or “Dadda.” Each time you repeat this action, your baby’s brain associates a sound with a respective object.

As your baby’s level of cognition develops, your “serve” and “return” interplay becomes more deliberate. For example, your baby says “Momma” or “Dadda” and reaches for you. You respond by smiling, picking up your baby and saying, “I’m Momma” or “I’m Dadda.” Each stage of language acquisition builds upon the previous stage.

In the preschool or kindergarten classroom, this similar interplay with teachers helps children associate sounds with the letters of the alphabet and the formation of words and sentences. This back-and-forth interplay not only nurtures language development, it also teaches your child how to engage in social interactions, fosters positive relationships with others, and encourages your child to recall experiences and associate sounds and objects — all essential to your child’s development.

Way to Grow has put together some information to help you recognize and apply the “serve” and “return” technique to enhance your child’s development. Consider the following steps when you use the “serve” and “return” technique with your child.

Be attentive to your child’s ‘serve’

Is your child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving her arms and legs? Each of these actions is a “serve.” The key is to pay attention to what your child is focused on. Look for small opportunities throughout the day, such as when you’re dressing your child or waiting in line at the store.

Why is observing your child’s actions important in play? By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about your child’s abilities, interests and needs. You’ll strengthen your parent-child bond by noticing her “serves.”


Return the ‘serve’

You can offer comfort with a hug and gentle words, or by acknowledging your child. You can make a facial expression or a sound; you can nod and smile to let your child know you see the same thing; or you can pick up the object your child points to and give it to her.

Responding to your child is important. Why? Supporting and encouraging rewards your child’s interests and curiosity. If you do not return your child’s “serve,” you may cause undue stress and frustration. Returning your child’s “serve” lets your child know you’ve understood her thoughts and feelings.


Name the object

When you return your child’s “serve” by naming the object, you are making important connections in her brain, even before she is able to speak or understand your words. You can name anything — a person, a thing, an action or a feeling. If your child points to her feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet.”

Naming is important. Why? When you name what your child is focused on, you help her understand the world around her and what to expect. Naming also gives her words to use and lets her know you care.

Wait for your child’s response

Every time you return a “serve,” give your child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick or may continue, going back and forth several times. It’s important that you wait for your child. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they are learning new things.

Why is waiting important? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give your child time to develop her ideas and build confidence and independence. Waiting also helps you understand her needs.

Share your child’s focus

Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. Your child might let go of one toy and pick up another, turn away to look at something, or walk away and say, “All done!” When you share your child’s focus, you’ll notice when she is ready to end one activity and begin another.

Why is paying attention to your child’s focus important? When you can find moments for your child to take the lead, you support her as she explores her world, and you make more “serve” and “return” interactions possible.


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2010. Three Core Concepts in Early Development.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2011. Five Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return.

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. 2014. Let’s Grow Kids Campaign: Focus on the First Years. “Serve” and “Return” for Strong Brain Connections.


Carolyn Smallwood is CEO of Way to Grow. Since joining Way to Grow in 2004, Carolyn has pledged to be the voice for all Twin Cities children. She is deeply committed to issues that concern our children and recently sat on Governor Dayton’s Early Learning Council; she currently co-chairs Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Cradle to K Cabinet, and serves on MN Comeback board and the MinneMinds Executive Committee. To learn more about Carolyn and how you can help Way to Grow do even more for children, visit