Every parent wants to ensure their baby’s brain is developing to its full potential—and researchers at Harvard University’s Center on The Developing Child say a certain kind of parental play known as “serve and return” is the perfect workout for little minds. No pressure or anything, but the science indicates these serves and returns build the foundation of baby’s brain architecture. That sets the stage for their future learning potential, behavior and health.
The good news is you’re probably already doing it when you respond to baby’s gestures and noises by mirroring a silly face or asking questions.
To maximize the impact of these serve and return games, the researchers at Harvard say parents should follow these five steps:
1. Notice when your child is “serving” and share their focus
When babies point at something or make a sound or a face, they’re serving up an opportunity for parents to interact. When we return the serve, we’re not just encouraging our children to explore the world around them, but we’re also learning about their interests and abilities.
The researchers at Harvard say parents can’t do this all the time—we’re busy, they know—so they suggest taking advantage of the quiet moments: When you’re in the line at the grocery store or finishing up a diaper change and baby starts pointing, follow their focus and see what they’re trying to show you.
2. Support your baby by returning the serve
While the researchers recognize parents can’t return ever serve, they stress it’s important for parents to acknowledge them when they can. That’s because when babies don’t get any returns, it can be stressful for them. Acknowledging what your baby is interested in lets him know that we hear and understand his thoughts and feelings. In turn, this encourages and rewards curiosity, which builds brain power by establishing neural connections.
3. Name your child’s interests
Little brains are making language connections long before they can talk. If baby serves by pointing to something, give her the name for the object—such as by saying, “Yes, that’s a dog!”
The team at Harvard says parents can name anything the child is serving up, whether it is an object, a person a feeling or an action. And naming a combination of those things (“Do you see Daddy? You seem happy to see him!”) isn’t too complex for baby. Rather, it helps the child’s brain acquire language skills and make sense of the world.
4. Take turns and take your time
After returning a serve, give baby a moment to respond. This back and forth can go on for a long time, but waiting for the child to form a response is crucial, according to the Harvard research. Because our babies are learning so much at once, they need a little extra time to come up with their response.
When we wait for another serve, we’re giving baby time to develop ideas, which helps build confidence and independence. It also teaches self-control and helps baby understand how to interact with other people.
5. Let baby end the game
When baby seems like she’s done serving up this game of peek-a-boo or point-and-name, follow that lead. If they walk away or pick up a new toy or start to get cranky, follow their focus and you’ll notice when your baby is ready to be done with one activity and begin another. By noticing when children are signaling the end of an activity, parents are opening up an opportunity for new serves that explore a different part of baby’s world.
Research indicates more than 1 million new neural connections form every second in the first year of children’s lives. While genes are the basis for the circuit building, parents and caregivers are a major influence in reinforcing the connections through serve and return interactions.
We may not catch every serve, but we can make the ones we do notice matter. It may seem like a game to pass time in the checkout line, but it’s really building your child’s brain and future.