Lessons in Baby Brain Development from Serena Williams’s Tennis Game
You, too, can be a champion … at parenting.
We talk a lot about how children learn through play, but when it comes to babies — who can’t yet speak and are startled by their own toes — what does play mean? What kinds of activities boost a baby’s brain development? How do you actually play with babies?
Some of early play is about babies exploring simple objects on their own, but a lot of it is about their interaction with parents and adult caregivers. Don’t be dismayed — you don’t have to start acting out fairy tales. Play at this age is all about a concept that child development experts called ‘Serve and Return,’ which literally builds a baby’s brain, establishes a warm, supportive bond with caregivers, and instills the basics of communication and social interaction.
As the name suggests, it’s as easy as following a tennis match, and to help us explain it, we’re calling on the greatest tennis player of our (all?) time, Serena Williams.
‘Serve and Return’ activities that boost baby brain development
Notice how Serena’s attention is glued to the ball that she is about to send crashing into her opponent? Playing with babies starts by recognizing their serve: Is your baby making a face, staring or pointing at something? Has he turned his head? Is he making a sound? You’ll have to be on the look out — it’s not a 200 km/h tennis ball flying at your head, after all — but these little moments of focus are an opportunity for you, almost like a conversational opener or the serve that starts a new rally in tennis.
And over time, you’ll start putting together patterns of interest, ability and needs — just like noticing Serena bounces her ball five times before her first serve every single time she plays.
Now it’s your turn to be Serena (#goals). It’s your job to ‘return,’ that is, respond to your child’s serve. Look at what she’s noticed and respond with an, “I see!” or “What are you looking at?” You can pick up the object and give it to her, or simply make eye contact, smile and nod. This validates your baby’s curiosity and makes her feel secure, like her thoughts and feelings are understood and supported.
At this point, you should also comment about the object or situation your baby is noticing — give it a name, a shape, a colour, a purpose. Saying “That’s a red ball,” or “The fan makes you feel cold,” or “Those are your feet!” or “It is hot, isn’t it?” all helps build your baby’s vocabulary as well as her understanding of herself and the world around her.
Don’t worry if at first you feel more ungainly than Serena looks; first, we can’t all be superhumanly graceful, and second, your responses will become more natural over time. Also, as your baby develops, you’ll feel less like you’re talking to yourself, and more like you’re in a kind of conversation, a give and take — a serve and return.
Once you’ve returned, it’s your baby’s turn. In the same way tennis players hit a ball back and forth, or two people in a conversation take turns speaking, so it is playing with babies. The only (ha) difference is that with a baby, you might need to wait a bit. He’s not going to volley back to you with the same speed as Serena. He’s a baby; he’ll need a bit of time to process your return.
His response could be no more than a second look, a reach, a stare, or a noise, but that’s his effort to keep the rally going. With young babies, it may only last one shot back; with older babies and toddlers, the rally could go on for a few turns each. The important thing is to give the child time to process and formulate a response, so that he imbibes the concept of taking turns and self-control and builds confidence in expressing himself. And if your baby doesn’t speak real words yet, don’t worry; that babble is still your baby vocalizing and expressing himself. Be sure not to interrupt — he may be talking nonsense, but to him, his babble is an important part of this conversation!
Then, take another turn responding! If you’ve already named and described the object or situation in the first return (“It’s a yellow ball.”) try talking about what it does: “A ball rolls. Can you roll the ball?”
Babies are pretty clear when they are done. One second they’re into your rally, the next, they are looking in a different direction, picking up a new toy, moving away or fussing. Follow your child’s lead — it will give her confidence to keep exploring her world and will lead to more opportunities for Serve and Return for you both.
In this game, there are no losers — only an engaged parent or caregiver (anyone can do Serve and Return: grandparents, nannies, baby-sitters, etc!) and a stimulated and secure baby with a fast-developing brain.