Thalia Wright talks about serve and return

HomeThalia Wright talks about serve and return

Thalia Wright talks about serve and return

  1. Tell us about how you first became interested in the idea of ‘serve and return’.

I stumbled across the term by accident.  At the time I was not particularly interested in the idea of serve and return.  But it planted a few questions I kept coming back to.  If Harvard University is saying that this ‘serve and return’ thing is so important why don’t I see it more or hear it talked about more?  Can it really be as simple and easy at that?

  1. What were your initial impressions of the concept?

I didn’t like the term and wasn’t sure how much it had to offer.  After all, we all know that playing with babies, responding to them and building relationships is important.  So why do we need a clunky phrase like ‘serve and return’? I was also wary that a cute catchphrase like ‘serve and return’ seems to be making important ideas about the relational needs of babies too simplistic and then wrapping them up in a euro-centric metaphor about tennis!  

  1. How did your thinking change as you explored it further?

As I have dug deeper – I have become a bit of a convert.  Serve and return is not the answer to everything and we certainly need expert infant mental health, child development and parenting support services.  But I am increasingly convinced that promoting serve and return may be one important tool in encouraging more conversation and every-day actions across our communities that help children and whānau to thrive. I have noticed that almost everyone struggles with the label ‘serve and return’ when they first hear it. People have suggested different words to describe that mutual back and forth (including ako and aroha and even ‘love in action’).  But I have grown to value ‘serve and return’ precisely because of the image of a rally in a ping-pong game or tennis match.  

  1. From your point of view, what is so powerful about serve and return?
  • There are 4 things I like in particular:
  • It is concrete, specific and gives us a picture of what to do – rather than what to think or feel.  We know that love, attachment and attunement are vital.  But how do I start building that?  What if I don’t know if I really love this baby or feel a deep connection to it? What if I am a relief teacher who is only going to be with this baby for a few hours? The image of serve and return tells me the actions I need to start with and gives me a really clear picture of what I am trying to achieve – to start a rally and to see if I can keep it going.  And the best way to start is to see what the baby serves to me!  
  • It asks us to focus on the rally space with babies, not any particular activity. I find this really freeing and non-judgmental. It opens up opportunities for lots of cultural and personal differences. I don’t have to like reading, or feel comfortable singing, or go to a playgroup or buy any particular toy to start practising serve and return. This baby and I can do anything at all that we are mutually interested in. And I have to see and listen to this baby as a genuine partner to get and maintain that rally of interaction. 
  • It heals and protects children. It amazes me that a simple everyday action can be one part of making a difference for whānau who are dealing with trauma, adversity and intergenerational disadvantage. It keeps me hopeful when I feel stuck and overwhelmed.  
  • It is a classic ‘ice-berg’ idea.  It can look small on the surface – but there is a lot underneath. Serve and return is easy and simple so it helps me start and to act AND it challenges me to see and do more.  
  1. You’ve talked about serve and return as ‘the opposite of innovation’. Could you talk a bit more about what you mean by this?

There often seems to be a push to find and follow the shiny new ideas.  And this is good. But is can also be exhausting and feel faddish. What I like about serve and return is that it is not new or flashy or trying to persuade us to see the world in a new way. It is almost the opposite. Focusing on serve and return asks us to remember and value simple, calm disciplines and practices. While the concept is grounded in the latest neuroscience and promoted by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University, serve and return confirms ancient cultural wisdom about what all babies and children need.  It highlights the immense value of the work adults do when we give children time, respect, patience and love. 

  1. You describe serve and return as both simple and challenging. What would you say to teachers who are wanting to explore the idea of serve and return in their practice?

I think the most important thing is to get curious. Genuinely start noticing the details about when you are doing serve and return. How long are your rallies? What could be helping or making it harder? Look for examples of how other people are doing it in your setting, in your whānau, in your community – what worries you and what inspires you in what you see? It is okay to identify the hard, stuck and exhausting bits. Speaking up, asking questions, getting help, playing with some new ideas, being honest and not expecting to have all the answers are all part of being curious. And don’t worry if you don’t like the words ‘serve and return’. Just try and do it. See how you feel after a bit of conscious practice. If you come up with words that work better for you, use those instead.  

And I also love the reminder from Dr Dan Hughes that what we are doing in all of these responsive interactions is teaching children two vitally important skills for their lifelong wellbeing – to know joy and to accept comfort (yes – comfort and joy!).  Serve and return is about fun and playing and peek-a-boo. And it is also about the quiet cuddles and gentle pats and long deep gazes.  

Did you find this article useful?

If you enjoyed this content, please consider making a charitable donation.

Become a supporter for as little as $1 a week – it only takes a minute and enables us to continue to provide research-informed content for teachers that is free, high-quality and independent.

Become a supporter

Close popup Close
Register an Account