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Parents and Teachers Don't Have to Know Tennis--But Using a Serve-And-Return Game Can Support Children's Development

Research and experts say that "attentive caretakers" can make a tremendous difference in children's lives. Growing up surrounded by emotionally responsive, usually-attentive caretakers helps children learn to manage stress and regulate their own emotions. This can even lead to lower risk of physical and mental health problems in later life. 

But what does this look like in practice?

One example of a positive experience that encourages good early childhood development is the “serve-and-return” interaction. Developed by Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, this back-and-forth framework of caretaker-child behavior focuses on fostering a responsive and constructive environment for young children.

Modeled after a game of tennis, a “serve” can be thought of as a signal that the child wishes to interact, such as a bid for their caretaker’s attention. Children can use words, sounds, facial expressions and movements or gestures to get their caregiver’s attention. For the caregiver, “returning the serve” can look like making eye contact with the child, repeating the word or sound, or simply talking to the child in response to their bid for attention. 

Understanding these interactions and “returning” them properly can reduce stress in young children, promoting healthier psychological development. Additionally, using this technique helps protect growing biological systems in the child’s body, which are especially vulnerable at a young age. 

Children make lots of “serves” throughout the day, so the first step is paying attention. When a child points at something, makes a sound or word, reaches for or tries to hand you an object, give them your attention. This has a two-fold effect: encouraging curiosity and strengthening your relationship with the child.

The next step is being supportive and encouraging with your “return.”  Young children are strongly in tune with their emotions and quickly learn positive social cues. Use phrases such as “good job” or “thank you,”  or give the child a facial expression that shows them you’re interested and proud of them. Additionally, helping a child or playing with them makes them feel validated in their exploration of the world and more comfortable relying on you for support.

As you return a child’s serve, it is important to name what the child is naming, seeing or doing to help build their language association skills. Even before they can talk in complete sentences, children are constantly learning new vocabulary and language conventions by listening to speakers around.

Additionally, the back-and-forth nature of these interactions can help reinforce a child’s social skills by teaching them the importance of taking turns, sharing and getting along with others. Let the child lead some of these interactions, and then take the lead when they look confused or expect a response from you. Waiting for the child to respond to your serve or return helps them build confidence in their own actions, as well as come up with new ideas as they learn how to navigate new environments and situations.

Marcos Melendez
Marcos Melendez is an Ed Post Editorial Intern and a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Journalism and Psychology. His topics of interest include mental health and wellbeing, equity and inclusion, and political advocacy.

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