The Serious Business of Play

John Badalament

Anyone who's played or watched tennis knows the importance of a good serve and return -- the exciting volley that keeps us engaged in the game. However, most of us probably don't think about how important that type of back-and-forth exchange is when it comes to playing with our kids. But research suggests this kind of interplay is key to a child's brain development.

Research on the emotional connection between parents and children and the development of complex brain circuitry teaches us that a parent's capacity to understand a child's serve -- her mood and approach to play -- and to match that serve with our own engagement, builds the neural circuitry and leads to the development of important cognitive, social and language skills. Here's how Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child defines this important concept, known as serve and return:

"Science tells us that serve and return interactions are essential to the development of brain architecture. When adults interact with children in a caring, responsive way, they help build and reinforce neural connections in a child's brain that support the development of important cognitive, social and language skills. If an adult's responses are consistently unreliable, inappropriate or simply absent, children may experience disruptions to their physical, mental and emotional health."

[See: 9 Foods That Can Keep Your Brain Sharp.]

To see how this concept plays out in real life play between parents and their children, we filmed a free-play session during The Fatherhood Project's Dads Connect group, a program for underserved and at-risk fathers and their children that meets on Saturday mornings. Later, the children did an activity with staff while the dads in the group gathered around a table to view recorded free-play session.

While reviewing the interaction between one particular father and daughter, we encouraged the group to pay close attention to the positive interaction -- the serve and return -- between the dad and his daughter. In the video, we see the father and daughter playing with a toy truck and small figurines. Specifically, we asked the group to watch for what she served and how he returned it.

[Read: Fathers We Must Learn from Our Children.]

During the discussion following the video, we wrote down some of the key observations made by the group of dads, as well as the two group leaders -- a licensed social worker, Lindsay Dibona, and myself -- and Raymond Levy, the executive director of The Fatherhood Project. Here's what we observed:

-- The play occurs in the context of a loving and empathic relationship, which seems primary to this father at all times. Dad is gentle while on the floor playing with his daughter, reflecting his daughter's own gentle approach, as she feels things out while they play.

-- She points; he responds by looking to where she's pointing.

-- Dad recognizes when she serves uncertainty and when she needs help, and he returns with approval, giving her confidence and a willingness to take risks and move forward.

-- Dad seems to understand she wants all the figures on the truck and doesn't fuss with the two she has lying down; he allows her imagination to guide her play, without adult interference.

-- Dad follows her lead in playing with the figures and the truck by asking her questions, and engaging in dialogue -- verbal serve and return.

-- She tries some things and looks to him for approval and he returns nodding, smiling and affirming her with verbal responses.

-- Dad increases the complexity of the interaction by pushing the truck (serving), which encourages his daughter to respond, or return, by taking initiative, thinking creatively and playing along. His move actually keeps things from getting boring and keeps the interaction going.

The overall emphasis in this session was the importance of paying attention, focusing and being present for your children, so you can see what they serve and respond accordingly. By pointing out the positive micro-interactions in the video, the aim was to strengthen all of the dads' understanding of interactions with their children.

[See: 10 of the Biggest Health Threats Facing Your Kids This School Year.]

Something as subtle as placing figurines on a truck may not -- on the surface -- seem particularly important for brain development. But looking closely at how we respond to our children's activity, and ensuring we're doing so in an engaged, caring and responsive way, can have a profound impact on their emotional, mental and physical health. It may seem like just another game, but those successful serves and returns can make all the difference in bolstering your child's development.

John Badalament is the director of programs at The Fatherhood Project at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is the author of the book, "The Modern Dad's Dilemma," and director of the PBS documentary, "All Men Are Sons: Exploring The Legacy of Fatherhood." John's work has been featured on ABC News, NPR and in The Huffington Post. He has spoken and consulted internationally in schools, government agencies, nonprofit and private-sector organizations.