With Wimbledon finals fast approaching, we’re thinking about how children need “Serve and Return” interactions all year round, be it strawberry season or not! 

For the past month Harvard University’s Centre for the Developing Child has been talking a lot about ‘Serve and Return’ interactions in child-adult relationships, and about why these are so important during the early years of a child’s life. But what do they mean by ‘Serve and Return’?

This phrase refers to a type of interaction which involves back and forth exchanges between infants (and later children) and adults. This usually and often happens quite naturally on a daily basis. When an infant smiles, babbles, or makes a gesture, they ‘Serve’ or make an offer to interact. When an adult responds by noticing this and smiling, speaking, or making a reciprocating movement, they ‘Return’. This way the back-and-forth of the interaction is established. This is the stuff of lively households comprised of young children and responsive adults, who are sensitive and attuned to the child’s communications.

These early exchanges are important because they form the basis for a person’s social communication skills through life and for the child’s sense of themselves as a lovable, creative person. They crucially even help to shape the architecture of the brain, laying down foundations for all future learning and wellbeing. Child-adult relationships that are attuned and responsive then, with lots of back and forth interactions, help to build strong foundations for life.

Just like a lively tennis match, these back-and-forth interactions are both enjoyable, confidence building and – crucially – help to build the foundations of emotional intelligence in children which, as we are beginning to discover, will be an important aspect of their success in the AI-driven job market place of the future.

To help caregivers understand these interactions and promote the growth of social and emotional wellbeing in children, the Centre has outlined 5 important steps of Serve and Return interactions, which we have summarised for our nannies and families here:

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

Is the child making a sound, looking at something, or moving its arms in excitement? That’s a serve. Pay attention to what they’re focusing on, and try to understand what they are trying to communicate. Verbal and non-verbal communication are equally important.

  1. Return the serve by supporting and encouraging

You could make a sound or a facial expression that acknowledges that the child is trying to articulate by saying a simple recognising words like “Yes, I see!” – something that lets the child know you’re noticing how they are feeling or what they need. All the effort you put into trying to understand the child, and putting them at the centre of your attention, will make their confidence grow!

  1. Give it a name

When you return a serve by naming what a child might be seeing, doing, or feeling, you’re helping to make important language connections in their brain, even long before the child can talk or understand your words.

  1. Take turns… and wait

When you return a serve, give your child a chance to respond. Waiting is important. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they are learning so many new things at once.

  1. Practice endings and beginnings

Children often signal when they’re ready to move onto a new activity: their focus will turn to something else. Perhaps they might like a new game of “Serve and Return”, some unstructured playtime or to have a rest.

Read more about this Key Concept on the Centre for the Developing Child’s website here: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/

Kudos endeavours to provide families with holistic support to ensure that their children are being supported and attended to during crucial years of early development. Our trained and responsive nannies help you to build the foundation for your child’s lifelong learning, success and happiness