The power of SERVE and RETURN

The power of SERVE and RETURN 1620 1620 Nursery Story
peekaboo

The idea of serve and return – back and forth interactions – is an important one when we look at how babies and children develop in their early years. In today’s blog, we want to explore the value of serve and return, delve deeper into the reasons why children need to chat, and examine the relationship between talking, thinking and learning.

Moreover, we want to show how practitioners can support children’s thinking, talking, and learning on a practical level each day in their early years settings. Five of the most important aspects of brain development in the early years are connecting, talking, playing, a healthy home, and community. The role of nurseries can’t be overstated where early brain development is concerned. 

Brain Development

We know how crucial the first five years are for a child’s brain development. Once they reach five, their brain is already at 90% of the volume of an adult brain. ‘Building a baby’s brain’ can sound more than a little intimidating for parents and practitioners alike. However, what if we approach it another way? If we frame it as ‘play is the most important interaction you can with a child,’ it suddenly sounds a lot less daunting. Harvard University’s Dr Jack Shonkoff is adamant that “parenting is much more of an art than it is a science,” and extols the virtues of building a baby’s brain through play.

“The early years are important in terms of brain development because the experiences that young children have and the relationships they have with the important people in their lives literally shape the development of their brains. And that early foundation affects all the learning and behaviour and physical and mental health that follows through a lifetime. It’s impossible to overestimate how important the early years are.” (Shonkoff)

‘Early and Often’

When a child points at something they’ve seen, or maybe makes a sound or facial expression, that’s a serve. Recognising a serve – the things that spark a child’s interests – will put you in a position to return and therefore enable the child to maximise the benefits of your exchanges. They will also strengthen the bond between you. Now, for your return. It should be supportive (“I see!”) and expressive (smiling and nodding). You are letting the child know that what they are feeling and communicating to you is being heard and understood. If a child is pointing at a banana, for instance, you can smile and tell them you see it. Then you can go one further and bring them the object, whilst naming it. “This is a banana!” This furthers their understanding that you are caring for them and also teaches them at the same time. 

During these exchanges it’s vital you give the child enough time to formulate a response and express themselves. Waiting will help keep the ‘serve and return’ working and in turn teaches the child self-control and how to best get along with others. You will understand their needs better, too. 

How is ‘serve and return’ related to play?

As we have discussed in a few of our most recent blog posts, the benefits of being ‘in the moment’ with a child are huge. To smile at a child and have them do the same back is one thing. But to then continue that interaction and start playing with them, to engage their curiosity and sense of wonder through play, actually builds brain circuits. 

“For very young children, all important learning takes place within the context of play. Play is exploration. Play is trying things. Play is trying to kind of figure out when you do one thing, something else happens. Play is trying to develop a sense of mastery of the world. A lot of that is done by providing an environment that is safe and provides opportunities for learning.” (Shonkoff)

How should I get started with ‘serve and return’?

You might want to explore your own research into this subject. We’d recommend starting with the concept that ‘peekaboo can change the world’. When you’re ready to get started at your early years setting then the key is to be ‘in the moment’ as much as you can. Every moment between a child and a parent or a child and a practitioner is an opportunity. We now know these interactions offer so much more than they first appear. But their importance need not mean seriousness. The point of ‘serve and return’, certainly initially, is to make it easy, friendly, and relaxing. You want to encourage playful interaction and be in the moment enough so that your response is engaging enough to elicit a further response from the child.

As you do this you’ll realise the notion that ‘peekaboo’ can change the world isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Very young children will laugh as you hide your face and then reappear. Over time they’re learning that things can disappear before returning, knowing they exist the whole time. If the baby or young child demonstrates how much they like this repeatedly it’s because they are mastering an understanding of something new. And in this very simple way, you are building a brain.

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