Brain Story – Serve & Return

In this ‘Sharing the Science’ segment, we’ll take a look at adult-child relationships by comparing them to interactions between a child and adult in a tennis match.

From the ages of 0 to 5, children naturally initiate interaction with adults through babbling, gesturing and facial expressions. This develops vital language, cognitive and social skills. Positive experiences build the foundations of brain architecture.

Interactions between a child and an adult is like playing a game of tennis. 

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Good rallies between children and adults strengthen children’s developing brain architecture, improve their cognitive skills and develop resilience (Shonkoff et al, 2004; Shonkoff et al, 2015).

When adults do not respond to a child’s serve or if children engage in prolonged passive activity – such as watching TV – this can break the rally and interrupt the developmental process.

Language, for instance, is learnt more effectively face-to-face with a teacher or caregiver than by watching TV or a video (Shonkoff et al, 2018).

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Social and emotional development lead to intellectual growth

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To increase serve and return interactions, you can:

  • Focus on interactive, face-to-face activity, such as talking, singing and playing
  • Respond to and build on physical and verbal cues: if they babble, babble back; if they play with toys, play with them
  • Allow the child to ‘serve’ – follow their focus and return their serve with support and encouragement
  • Maintain eye contact when interacting with the child – this helps to build a nurturing, secure relationship
  • Positively reinforce children’s vocalizations: children repeat behaviors when they are praised, which helps shape their babbles into words (Crowley, 2017)

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