Dads and Kids Connect: The Serious Business of Play

The video below was taken during free-play at The Fatherhood Project’s Dads & Kids Saturday Activity Group at MGH Revere Health Center. Later in the session, during our ‘Dads-Connect’ segment of the group, the children did an activity with staff while the dads gathered around a table to view the video. I briefly introduced the concept of Serve and Return using the following definition from Harvard’s Center On The Developing Child:

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.

The emphasis of our viewing, I informed them, was to pay close attention to the positive interaction, the back and forth, the serve and return, between the dad and his daughter. Specifically, I asked them to watch for what she served and how he returned it. 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.

Watch the video and see how you do describing the ways this dad is attuned to what his daughter is “serving” him. Our thoughts are below.


The following is a combination of points made by the group of dads, the two group leaders, (Lindsay Dibona, LICSW and myself) and Dr. Ray Levy after viewing the video:

  • The play occurs in the context of a loving and empathic relationship, which seems primary to this father at all times. Dad is gentle which matches his daughter’s style, approach, affect – she’s a gentle girl feeling her way. He matches–soft, facilitating, no quick actions, no raised voice– and allows her to find her way and express herself.
  • Dad is on the floor, the site of her play, very physically present (non-verbal body language)
  • She points, he responds by looking to where she’s pointing
  • Dad recognized when she served uncertainty and the need for help, and he returned with approval, giving her confidence and a willingness to take her own 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 fantasy without adult interference.
  • Dad follows her lead in playing with the figures & truck by asking her questions, engaging in dialogue (verbal serve and return)
  • She tries some things and looks to him for approval and he returns nodding, smiling, affirming verbal responses
  • Dad actually increases the complexity of the interaction by pushing the truck (serving) and she responds, or plays along, which encourages her to take initiative, think creatively, and return his serve. His move actually keeps things from getting boring, keeps the interaction going.

Research on parent/child emotional connection and the development of complex brain circuitry teaches us that a parent’s capacity to understand and match, a child’s serve–her affect and approach to play– builds the neural circuitry and leads to the development of important cognitive, social and language skills.

We hope you can use this video demonstration and brief discussion for the benefit of your child’s growth.

One response to “Dads and Kids Connect: The Serious Business of Play

  1. The concept of play has changed a lot in recent times. With the advent of video games and electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, the simplicity and necessity of good old-fashioned playtime can often get lost in the mire.

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