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Child Brain Development using Serve and Return: Research from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child

  1. Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences affect the quality of that architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits become more efficient. Sensory pathways like those for basic vision and hearing are the first to develop, followed by early language skills and higher cognitive functions. Connections proliferate and prune in a prescribed order, with later, more complex brain circuits built upon earlier, simpler circuits.

In the proliferation and pruning process, simpler neural connections form first, followed by more complex circuits. The timing is genetic, but early experiences determine whether the circuits are strong or weak. Source: C.A. Nelson (2000). Credit: Center on the Developing Child

  •  The interactive influences of genes and experience shape the developing brain.

Scientists now know a major ingredient in this developmental process is the “serve and return” relationship between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family or community. Young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them. In the absence of such responses—or if the responses are unreliable or inappropriate—the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior

  • The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age.

The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. For example, by the first year, the parts of the brain that differentiate sound are becoming specialized to the language the baby has been exposed to; at the same time, the brain is already starting to lose the ability to recognize different sounds found in other languages. Although the “windows” for language learning and other skills remain open, these brain circuits become increasingly difficult to alter over time. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.

  • Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course.

The brain is a highly interrelated organ, and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar that comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.

Citation: Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

How to SERVE and RETURN with your child

The most important influence on early brain development is the real-life serve and return interaction with caring adults. For more information, see The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture. The Gooru Stroller Mirror enables Serve and return in a forward-facing stroller.

Follow these 5 steps to practice serve and return with your child using the Gooru Stroller Mirror.

  1. Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention

Is the child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? That’s a serve. The key is to pay attention to what the child is focused on. On a walk outside in the stroller, your child will see many objects.

WHY? By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about children’s abilities, interests, and needs. You’ll encourage them to explore and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.

  • Return the serve by supporting and encouraging

You can offer children comfort with acknowledgment. You can make a sound or facial expression—like saying, “I see!” or smiling and nodding to let a child know you’re noticing the same thing.

WHY? Supporting and encouraging rewards a child’s interests and curiosity. Never getting a return can actually be stressful for a child. When you return a serve, children know that their thoughts and feelings are heard and understood.

  • Give it a name!

When you return a serve by naming what a child is seeing, doing, or feeling, you make important language connections in their brain, even before the child can talk or understand your words. You can name anything—a person, a thing, an action, a feeling, or a combination. If a child points to their feet, you can also point to them and say, “Yes, those are your feet!”

WHY? When you name what children are focused on, you help them understand the world around them and know what to expect. Naming also gives children words to use and lets them know you care.

  • Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth.

Every time you return a serve, give the child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick (from the child to you and back again) or go on for many turns.

Waiting is crucial. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they’re learning so many things at once. Waiting helps keep the turns going.

WHY? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give children time to develop their own ideas and build their confidence and independence. Waiting also helps you understand their needs.

  • Practice endings and beginnings

Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. They might turn to look at something else. When you share a child’s focus, you’ll notice when they’re ready to end the activity and begin something new.

WHY? When you can find moments for children to take the lead, you support them in exploring their world—and make more serve and return interactions possible.

Serve and return interactions make everyday moments fun and become second nature with practice. By taking small moments during the day to do serve and return, you build up the foundation for children’s lifelong learning, behavior, and health—and their skills for facing life’s challenges.

Gooru supports and encourages parents to employ Serve and Return techniques throughout the day, including during walks or runs in the stroller using the Gooru Stroller Mirror. A parent’s window to interact with their child is limited, which is why one should take advantage of their opportunities when they arise. We’ll explore this concept further in our next blog!

Puck Fernsten

Founder, Gooru
puck@gooruglobal.com