Serve and return is a short-hand term coined by neuroscientists at Harvard University in 2005 to describe the back and forth of responsive interactions between adults and young children.It uses the image of a rally in a tennis match or game of ping-pong to represent the focused, back and forth, two-way interaction between an infant and an adult when both the infant and adult are trying to communicate, to understand each other, to relate, and to show care and interest.
Responsive interactions have been identified as a vital element in supporting children to thrive. Serve and return interactions are important for all children, but especially critical for infants. The value of serve and return interactions in the first 1000 days cannot be over-stated. Infants are born wanting and expecting to connect and, from the very start, they seek out connection with the people around them. Getting a caring and attuned response often enough from the adults around them is essential for all aspects of children’s holistic development.
A wealth of neuroscientific research produced since the 1990s has confirmed that the loving, in-tune, back and forth serve and return interactions that adults have with infants build the foundations for all later brain development, learning, and emotional, mental and physical health. Infants who receive enough love and responsive attention feel safe and soothed, and build brains that are ready to play, explore and learn. Infants who do not receive enough love and responsive attention miss out on the positive brain building stimulation that comes from interacting with a loving and responsive adult but, much more than this, they feel unsafe and highly stressed. Their bodies are often flooded with potentially harmful stress hormones and their brains are more likely to be wired to be ready to react, defend themselves and survive.
Serve and return is often presented as ‘just playing’ with an infant. However, high quality serve and return requires an adult to be deeply interested in forming a relationship with the child, to have enough uninterrupted one-on-one time to focus and to notice the small things, rather than just performing tasks like reading, singing, talking, and feeding. A significant challenge of serve and return is to ask how much, and how well, teachers and caregivers are able to engage in uninterrupted, relationally responsive rallies with infants and toddlers. There are a number of factors that are likely to impact on this, including the feelings, state of mind and mental wellbeing of the teacher or caregiver, and the affordances and challenges created by the setting.
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