December 2023 Newsletter – Practices that Support Healthy Development: Serve and Return

Serve and Return

The research of experts such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth has given us a much clearer understanding of attachment, how it forms, and the impact that attachment has on future development and relationships. Attachment can be described as the bonds that children develop with their caregivers. You can read more about attachment here.

One of the best ways that caregivers can engage with children to build strong bonds is called serve and return. Imagine a tennis match, which begins when one player serves the ball. The second player must then return the ball to the server by hitting it back over the net.

Now imagine you are sitting with a young child who points to a toy on the shelf. That is the child’s serve. Your role is to return that serve with an appropriate interaction. You might say, “You are pointing to the basket of balls. Do you want to play with a ball?” or you might pull the toy off the shelf, name it, and hand it to the child.

Children’s serves come in all types of actions and your returns can be just as varied. It is essential, though, that you are able to identify that a serve has been sent your way and provide a fitting return. Here are some tips to help you engage in serve and return interactions:

  • Pay attention to cues – Hunger cues, signs of sleepiness, interest in a new activity, waning interest in a toy or activity, signs of frustration, or lack of engagement are all things that might prompt a serve from a child.
  • Mirror the child’s actions – When a child laughs and smiles at you, laugh and smile back. When a child points, look and point in the direction they are pointing. When a child babbles, talk to them.
  • Take turns – When playing with children, alternate who places the next block on the tower. Play turn-taking games and fingerplays. Be patient as you build children’s self-control as you model self-control as you wait for your turn.
  • Have turn-taking conversations – Regardless of the age of the child, name items, describe what you notice the child doing, or describe what you are doing. Say things like “What else?”, “What’s next?” or “Tell me more.” to prompt turn-taking conversations. These questions also extend children’s thinking, ideas, and play.
  • Sometimes it is appropriate to return a child’s serve with an offer of encouragement, smile, or nod. You can also let the child know you are available to help if they need it.

Typically, serve-and-return recommendations focus on interacting with infants and toddlers, but engaging in serve-and-return interactions with children of all ages will help build relationships and strengthen social and emotional development.


For the main article Practices that Support Healthy Development, CLICK HERE

For the article Build Resilience, CLICK HERE

For the article Strengthening Cultural Responsiveness, CLICK HERE

For the article Build Strong Relationships with Families, CLICK HERE