Briefs, Tools & Guides

5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return

  Download PDF
  Download PDF in Spanish


Child-adult relationships that are responsive and attentive—with lots of back and forth interactions—build a strong foundation in a child’s brain for all future learning and development. This is called “serve and return,” and it takes two to play! Follow these 5 steps to practice serve and return with your child.

  1. Notice the serve and share the child's focus of attention

    A woman caregiver with a young boy standing on a fence, both pointing at something

    Is the child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving those little arms and legs? That’s a serve. The key is to pay attention to what the child is focused on. You can’t spend all your time doing this, so look for small opportunities throughout the day—like while you’re getting them dressed or waiting in line at the store.

    WHY? By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about children’s abilities, interests, and needs. You’ll encourage them to explore and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.

  2. Return the serve by supporting and encouraging

    Male caregiver playing on the floor with a sitting baby and some colorful blocks

    You can offer children comfort with a hug and gentle words, help them, play with them, or acknowledge them. You can make a sound or facial expression—like saying, “I see!” or smiling and nodding to let a child know you’re noticing the same thing. Or you can pick up an object a child is pointing to and bring it closer.

    WHY? Supporting and encouraging rewards a child’s interests and curiosity. Never getting a return can actually be stressful for a child. When you return a serve, children know that their thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.

  3. Give it a name!

    A woman caregiver with a toddler at the grocery store, both are holding peppers

    When you return a serve by naming what a child is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in their brain, even before the child can talk or understand your words. You can name anything—a person, a thing, an action, a feeling, or a combination. If a child points to their feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet!”

    WHY? When you name what children are focused on, you help them understand the world around them and know what to expect. Naming also gives children words to use and lets them know you care.

  4. Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth.

    Two caregivers, a woman and a man, sit on the floor with a young boy and color with markers

    Every time you return a serve, give the child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick (from the child to you and back again) or go on for many turns.

    Waiting is crucial. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they’re learning so many things at once. Waiting helps keep the turns going.

    WHY? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give children time to develop their own ideas and build their confidence and independence. Waiting also helps you understand their needs.

  5. Practice endings and beginnings

    Woman caregiver playing on the floor with crawling baby

    Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. They might let go of a toy, pick up a new one, or turn to look at something else. Or they may walk away, start to fuss, or say, “All done!” When you share a child’s focus, you’ll notice when they’re ready to end the activity and begin something new.

    WHY? When you can find moments for children to take the lead, you support them in exploring their world—and make more serve and return interactions possible.


    Serve and return interactions make everyday moments fun and become second nature with practice. By taking small moments during the day to do serve and return, you build up the foundation for children’s lifelong learning, behavior, and health—and their skills for facing life’s challenges.

  Subscribe to our newletter   Request permission to republish this resource

Explore Related Resources