A Guide to Serve and Return: How Your Interaction with Children Can Build Brains

You may have heard the phrase “serve and return” in the context of child development, but what does it actually mean? At its core, serve and return is about responsive interactions between children and the people who care for them, and how those interactions help children grow and reach their full potential. In this guide, learn more about what serve and return is, the science behind it, and how easy it is to help build strong brains by engaging in serve and return with a child.

Part 1: What is "Serve and Return”?

So, what exactly is “serve and return”? (Hint: It’s not just about tennis!)

Serve and Return

This intro page describes the basics behind how supportive interactions between young children and their caregivers make young brains stronger.

Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships

Working Paper 1 cover

From before they’re born through the earliest years, babies and children are building neural connections at an astounding rate. These connections lay the foundation for success throughout their lives. And how are those neural connections created and strengthened? By interacting with attentive caregivers. This resource gives insight into the science behind how serve and return interactions help children develop.

Serve & Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry

A mother responds to her baby's babbling

This two-minute video explores the science behind serve and return, including how connections are made in a child’s brain in response to serve and return interactions with an adult.

Part 2: How Do I "Serve and Return”?

Now that you understand what serve and return interactions are and why they’re important, learn how you, too, can participate in this crucial aspect of a child’s development! Below, find several resources that give step-by-step instructions on how to respond to a child’s serves in a way that builds their brain.

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

Smiling Hispanic female daycare teacher works with cute little female preschooler. The teacher and student are sitting at a table working with educational development toys.

This step-by-step guide shows how serve and return interactions unfold, and gives practical advice on how to recognize a child’s serves and respond. (It’s easy!)

How-to: 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

Watch serve and return in action! For those who prefer to view instead of read, this video walks you through the five steps of serve and return with examples of real children and their caregivers.

Play in Early Childhood: The Role of Play in Any Setting

A child and caregiver wearing goggles and doing a science experiment at a children's museum

Play is a great way to support and build responsive relationships. In this video, learn more about the science of play, and how serve and return can be used in play to build young brains.

Building Babies’ Brains Through Play: Mini Parenting Master Class

In this Mini Parenting Master Class from UNICEF, Center on the Developing Child Director Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., explains the importance of serve and return interactions like play—and how easy they are, especially with practice!

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