Playtime, anytime!

Turn everyday routines into fun playful moments for learning and brain development.

Blanca Nohemí López and Orlando Cristóbal Gómez are playing with their son Pablo Sebastián Gómez López (one year old) on October 24h, 2019 in the community of San Juancito, Monjas, Jalapa in Guatemala.
26 June 2022

In the first 1,000 days of life (first 3 years), your child’s brain develops faster than at any other time. Even more incredible is that before young children can even talk, you can help with that brain building.

How? Through serve and return!

>>Watch Building babies’ brains through play: Mini Parenting Master Class


With help from our friends at the LEGO Foundation and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, we’ll show you how to engage with your child in a way that helps them foster important connections and have fun while doing it.


What is serve and return?

Serve and return is a series of back and forth interactions between a child and parent or primary caregiver, where an adult responds lovingly and appropriately to a baby or toddler’s noises and gestures. Think of it as a game of ping-pong: it’s all about the back and forth — and having fun!

The most important part is showing your child that you care, and reacting to their needs, emotions and things that excite them in a way that demonstrates that you are paying attention to them.


How do I practice serve and return with my child?

Building your baby’s brain does not need to be complicated and better yet, it can be built into every day routines and moments. Any moment with your baby can turn into a playful opportunity to learn!

Here are some easy ways you can start incorporating serve and return into your everyday interactions with your little one.


The 'name game'

Rebeccka and her baby Naybare Sheba (5 months) at the POC (ISIS Point of Care Clinic) Mbarara RRH (Regional Referral Hospital) South Western Uganda.

Add some fun to your morning routine! Dressing your child is a great opportunity to help her make important language connections. As you observe her interest in each article of clothing you put on, give them names. For example, as you hold up her shirt, say “yes, this is your shirt!” You can take it a step further by teaching her details about it: “What colour is this shirt? This is a blue shirt!”


Food time fun!

On 23 July, 2019, Joaquín, 2, is offered broccoli by his mother, Rosina, during lunch at their home in a rural area of the department of San José, Uruguay.

Explore your kitchen with your child – it’s full of exciting sights, colours, shapes and smells for your baby to explore. Support and encourage your child’s curiosity by paying close attention to what your child is looking at, interested in and reacting to. For example, if you notice your baby staring at a banana, pick it up and bring it closer to him while teaching him about what it is, what it feels like, what colour it is. Acknowledging your baby’s interests will help him to feel understood and cared for.


Bath time play

Daw Nyo Nyo Aye bathes her daughter Kyal Zin Naing (10 months) at her home, Lay Bway Chaung Village, Kan Gyi Daunt township, Irrawaddy region, Myanmar.

Grab some bath toys or a ball and get ready to play! Let your baby pick the toy that grabs her interest first. Play with her back and forth, and when she’s ready to move to the next toy make a point to acknowledge the end of her time with the first toy by saying “all finished!” Toddlers may be readier than infants to lead playful moments that adults can then follow. Making connections to endings and beginnings, sharing in her focus and letting her take the lead will help her feel supported in her learning and exploring.  


Point and learn

Zakir smiles as he watches joy on his son's face in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Whether it’s in the car or around the neighbourhood, there are lots of things to see when walking outside. Pay attention to what your baby seems interested in through his gestures, gaze or sounds and point to it while telling your baby what it is: “Oh do you see the bird? That’s a beautiful bird!” This will show your child that you both care about his interests and encourage him to explore the world around him.


Food swap

Refugee mother feeding her baby at ADRA community centre in Belgrade, Serbia.

When feeding your baby a snack, take turns in who does the feeding. Feed her one piece and let her pick up the next piece herself. Even if it takes some time, wait for your child to respond. Taking turns helps build her confidence and social skills. This would be a great game for babies 6 months and older.

By taking the time to create these back and forth interactions every day, you are helping to prepare your baby, laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning and problem solving. Who knew brain building could be so much fun?!

Article by Mandy Rich, Digital Content Writer, UNICEF


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