‘Serve and return’ Parents as children’s brain builders

By Cara Johnson-Bader

The CEO of New Horizon Academy, Chad Dunkley, recently attended an early childhood conference in Baltimore. At the conference, a professor from Georgetown University spoke about recent research on brain development and about the importance of “serve and return.”

Serve and return is the back and forth exchange between children and significant adults in their lives (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.). This back-and-forth process is fundamental to the wiring of the brain, especially in the earliest years. Think tennis, ping-pong, or volleyball.

As parents, we know that children naturally seek interaction. The coo of a baby, the smile of a toddler, the shout of “Look at me!” from a preschooler are all examples of children seeking interaction. Parents or caregivers respond with sweet whispers to the baby, a smile and an “I love you” to the toddler, and a “Wow, you are building with blocks! Tell me about what you are building” to the preschooler. These interactions help “wire” the brain by creating connections. When parents and caregivers respond to a child’s initiation of interaction, it fosters brain development.

Harvard University has a video that explains how serve and return helps brain development. It is a pretty powerful video and demonstrates how the serve and return concept nourishes minds and sets the stage for later development and learning. Here is a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_5u8-QSh6A&feature=player_embedded

After hearing the powerful information and watching the video from Harvard University on the importance of serve and return, I started thinking about my own interactions with my children. I realized there is no need to purchase expensive toys, games, equipment, or DVDs in order to support brain development. It is the everyday interactions I engage in with my children that stimulate brain development.

In a nutshell, the simple act of reading to your child, even as early as two months of age, can have long-term positive effects on a baby’s mind. Not only does the physical act of reading to your child bring you closer together, but the action helps to solidify and strengthen the emotional parent-child bond. For example, the playful sing-song voice of a mother reciting the words and allowing her six-month-old child to grasp the pages of a book, feel them underneath her fingers, and flip the pages, engages the child and allows connections in her brain to ignite.

It is really pretty simple and powerful. Your child will toss you an opportunity to build her brain and all you have to do is respond with a meaningful reply, and the brain will make connections. As you can see, everyday interactions with your child present an opportunity for brain building.

Since learning about the serve and return concept, I have been purposeful and intentional in my interactions with my children. I now see myself as an architect of my sons’, Ben and Will’s, brains. I thought I would share a few ideas of things I learned in the research and activities that I have implemented to be a brain builder. Below are a few easy to implement brain building activities.

One-on-one time

The number one brain booster for children is one-on-one time with parents.

Respond warmly and quickly to a child’s cues for support and attention.

Sensitivity – Learn to be aware of children’s signals. Watch for their signals and how you can respond.

Timing – Respond quickly to children’s signals rather than waiting for extended periods of time.

Warmth – Be gentle and caring with children when responding to cues, which helps them feel trust.

Hold, touch, and snuggle with your child.

Touch is a child’s lifeline to security, attachment, and reassurance.

Make time each day to practice and encourage repetition of songs, stories, and other experiences.

Few things build a child’s brain and open opportunities for learning more than consistent repetition of healthy activities or experiences. Telling the same stories and singing the same songs over and over may feel boring to you, but it is not boring to children.

Children learn through repetition.

Talk, laugh, sing, play peek-a-boo, and read with your child — children need to hear language.

The key to language development in a child’s brain is hearing language — lots of it.

Music and language not only introduce children to words, but help them learn rhythm, sequences, and spatial and math skills.

Cook together.

Cooking can help a child learn and practice some basic math concepts and build language skills.

And the experience of creating meals with you can help build their self-confidence and lay the foundation for healthy eating habits.

Cara Johnson-Bader is the Vice President of Marketing and Parent Experiences at New Horizon Academy and mother of two young boys. Learn more about New Horizon Academy at newhorizonacademy.net.

Idaho Family Magazine