When the Harvard Center on the Developing Child released the 5 steps of serve and return, we knew we had to share it! Every BabySparks instructional video incorporates serve and return interactions; they’re essential in building the foundation of every area of a child’s development. And believe us when we say that “every area” is not an overstatement! The 5-steps of serve and return don’t just help develop a baby’s cognitive, social, or physical skills. They help with moral development, self-confidence, strong mental health, and can even spark a motivation to learn. Due to the magnitude of this remarkable system of interaction, we think it’s imperative to dive deeper into the specifics.
Here’s a step-by-step guide:
Serve and Return Defined
The Harvard Center on the Developing Child defines serve and return as a series of interactions that shape “brain architecture”. When a baby or toddler turns to an adult and “serves” a cue to interact (babbling, crying, pointing, talking) and that cue is received and returned by an adult, neural connections are built and strengthened.
The 5 Steps of Serve and Return
1 – When you detect a serve, share the focus of your child’s attention. The importance of this step is to be aware of the serve (a facial expression, a cooing sound, a point in a particular direction, or a word). Once you notice the serve, get involved with whatever she’s looking at or pointing to. It’s like crawling into her visual field to share the stimulus.
Example: While you’re standing at the sink, you look over and notice that she’s pointing to a bird that’s just landed on the window sill. Engage in the action with her, make eye contact with her, point at the bird, and share the experience.
Objective: Engaging in the serve with her encourages these actions. By joining with her and sharing her focus, you’re also strengthening your bond.
2 – Return the serve by showing support and excitement for her action. In this step, you want to express acknowledgment for her discovery and show her that you’re excited too.
Example: Smile, nod your head, and show her that you’re in agreement! “I see the bird too! It’s so beautiful!” Maybe bring her closer to the window so she can see it more clearly.
Objective: When she sees something stimulating and she points to it, if no one responds, it can create a sense of anxiety for her. Returning a serve makes her feel acknowledged, comforted, and understood.
3 – Name it! You want to make sure the serve is returned with purpose. When she points something out and expresses curiosity, excitement, or interest, give it a name.
Example: When you bring her to the window to see the bird, repeat the word “bird”. Give her extra details like “tiny, yellow bird” or encourage her to interact, “let’s say hello to the birdy”.
Objective: Naming the object and repeating it for her not only helps her learn these words, but also lets her know you’re interested and you care about what’s going on in her world.
4 – Wait for a response and keep the interaction going. The keyword in this step is “wait”. Sometimes we’ll return a serve and mistakenly take her silence as a sign of disinterest or indifference. Remember that she needs time to process what she’s seeing, hearing, and feeling. Once you do get a response, take turns with your words and expressions and keep the interaction going.
Example: When you ask her “do you want to say hello to the birdy?” she pauses. Take some time to let it all sink in. Whatever her response is, a wave, another pointing finger, or maybe a clap of the hands, return this serve again and keep taking turns. Just remember to give her time to process!
Objective: Waiting helps her to feel more comfortable and confident in developing her own ideas. It also helps her to understand self-control and how communication works.
5 – Practice beginning and ending an action. It’s often pretty obvious when a baby or toddler is ready to move on. Her eyes might dart to something else or she’ll show a little fussiness when she’s done with the activity. The point of this step is to allow her to take the lead when ending a certain activity and beginning a new one.
Example: While you’re at the window, she starts to squirm and move her focus to something else in the room. You can say something like “bye-bye birdy” or “all done!” to signify that you understand that she’s ready to stop birdwatching.
Objective: Allowing her to gain some control over beginning and ending an activity can help promote more these serve and return interactions. It also shows your support for her exploration into the world!
Remember that you don’t need to engage in serve and return all day every day! Look for natural opportunities to do it, like during bath time (when you need to be fully focused on your child for safety reasons) or while doing BabySparks activities!