Serve and return: learn how early childhood interactions are crucial to learning

Picture this common scenario: you are standing in line at the grocery checkout and a baby seated in the cart in front of you makes eye contact. She looks at you inquisitively, leans her body back, and smiles. You smile back, wave, and say "hello."

The baby babbles, delighted by your attention. She continues to interact. She points to a balloon at the checkout aisle. You say to her, "Look. The pink balloon has a flower on it." She claps her hands in happy response. And then you smile and wave again.

This brief interaction with this child is not just a friendly exchange. It is much more. You are actually supporting the development of her brain circuitry.

Serve and return

"This simple interaction is called serve and return. It is this back-and-forth communication between children and responsive adults that builds a young child's brain architecture," says Dr. Elanna S. Yalow, chief executive officer of KinderCare Early Learning Programs.

Dr. Yalow is a strong proponent for the importance of serve and return for all young children, starting with infants. "Serve and return is like a game of tennis between a young child and a caring, responsive adult," says Yalow. A baby coos or cries, or a preschool child asks "Why?" The adult returns the child's "serve" with interest, and the back and forth begins.

"Serve and return promotes learning because these interactions actually help to develop the neural pathways in a child's brain," Yalow explains. Because 70 percent of all brain development occurs within the first three years of life, consistent use of serve and return is essential to establishing a strong foundation for success in school and later life.

Open-ended engagement

Simply giving children directions does not foster healthy brain development. Children need rich, meaningful exchanges to develop the brain connections that pave the way for continued learning and growth.

Asking children open-ended questions is an easy way to start serve and return. If a child draws a picture, parents and teachers should do more than compliment the picture. Asking the child "What is happening in your picture?" or "Why did you draw that?" creates an opportunity for back and forth dialogue. Praise is important for young children, but serve and return is essential to their development.

Serve and return and language development

Serve and return also plays an important role in developing literacy skills. Here's an example: a baby points to a ball and a parent or teacher says, "ball." This helps the child make a connection between the word and the corresponding object. Through this process, early literacy skills form. And as children grow older and adults read to them, asking children to react to what is being read or to predict what might happen next in the story also helps develop new connections in the brain.

The absence of serve and return

Without serve and return, the development of brain circuitry and learning can be impaired. And without meaningful interactions with responsive adults, even the youngest children show signs of distress.

Adults who simply satisfy a child's physical needs without providing serve and return interactions don't adequately support the healthy development of the child. Neural pathways that may be important to a child's future may never be formed or will fade away through a process called "pruning."

The foundation for all learning

Ensuring that children engage with caring adults who consistently engage in serve and return, beginning in infancy, builds the foundation for learning into adulthood.

"Serve and return is the fundamental difference between custodial care and high quality early childhood education," says Yalow. "Vibrant serve and return should be the goal in every home and classroom, something that every parent and teacher should practice."

Engaging with young children in intentional, meaningful ways not only helps them build relationships. It impacts their ability to develop language and cognitive skills. Serve and return is a crucial base on which all future development is built; it is the foundation for learning.

The next time you smile or wave at a baby in the market, remember how important serve and return is for that child's development. Your interaction is helping that child's brain in important ways.