When Your Child babbles, gestures, or cries, and you respond with eye contact, words, or a hug, new neural connections are built.
This strengthens the brain and supports the development of communication and social skills.
Playing mental tennis: Much like a lively game of tennis, this back-and-forth is fun and is key to building the foundation of brain capacity in the early years that will benefit Your Child for a lifetime. Harvard’s School of the Developing Child called these Serve and Return Interactions.
Because responsive relationships are essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a good foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults.
If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and, subsequently, physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. The persistent absence of serve and return interactions harm the healthy development of a baby in two ways: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs to build capacity, but also the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.
Harvard recommends these 5 steps to practice this mental ping pong with a child:
- Notice the serve: Pay attention to what Your Child is focused on and interested in — looking or pointing at something, making a sound or facial expression, or moving an arm. That’s a serve. Always do this whenever you have time. It gives you a much deeper understanding of Your Child’s abilities and interests, and the person the little one wants to be.
- Return the serve through encouragement: You can offer encouragement with a touch, gentle words, help, or simple acknowledgment. You can make a sound, smile, or say “I see!” Just let Your Child know that you see the same thing. This support will reward your baby’s interests and curiosity. Not getting a return can be stressful for Your Child. But when you return the serve, Your Child knows that those thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.
- Give it a name: When you return a child’s service by naming what Your Child is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in your baby’s brain, even before the little one 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 the feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet!” When you name what Your Child is focused on, you help the baby understand the world around you at the exact moment when interest is at its peak. There may not be a better way to teach a language and build communication skills.
- Take turns, wait, and keep playing back and forth: Whenever you return a serve, give Your Child a chance to respond. The response can be quick — from the baby to you and back again — or slow, because children often need time to form their responses, especially when they’re learning so many things at once. Waiting for Your Child also helps keep the turns going. Taking turns helps children not only learn but also build self-control and learn how to get along with others. When you wait, you’re giving the child time to develop personal ideas, build confidence, and get to know better.
- Practice endings and beginnings: Children show when they’re done or want to move on to another activity. They may leave a toy, take a new one, or turn to look at something else. Also, they may walk away, start to fuss, or say, “All done!” When you share Your Child’s focus, you’ll notice when the little one is ready to end the activity and begin something new. You can then support that decision.
If you have the chance, allow Your Child to take the lead and support the little one in exploring the immediate environment — and make more serve and return interactions possible.