Parents as Brain Builders

Did you know that parents have a key role in the brain development of their children? Our partners at New Horizon Academy share some excellent ideas on how you can use everyday activities to help your child's brain building.
Parents as Brain Builders | Twin Cities Moms Blog

As a busy mom I wear a lot of hats. Caretaker, doctor, chauffeur, chef, referee, just to name a few. The one hat I didn’t think about was brain builder. Yes, brain builder. As a parent, one of the most important hats we wear is that of a brain builder.

I work for New Horizon Academy, and our CEO, Chad Dunkley, attended an early childhood conference. At the conference, a professor from Georgetown University spoke about recent research on brain development. She spoke to the importance of serve and return. What is seve and return and how does it relate to brain building?

Well, “serve and return” is the back and forth exchange between a child and significant adult in their lives (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.). This back-and-forth process is fundamental to the wiring of the brain, especially in the earliest years. Think tennis, ping-pong, or volleyball.

Children naturally seek interaction. The coo of a baby, the smile of a toddler, and the shout of “Look at me!” from a preschooler are all examples of children seeking interaction. Parents or caregivers respond with sweet whispers to the baby, a smile and an “I love you” to the toddler, and a “Wow, you are building with blocks! Tell me about what you are building” to the preschooler. These interactions help “wire” the brain by creating connections. When parents and caregivers respond to a child’s initiation of interaction, it fosters brain development.

I found this information to be incredibly insightful, impactful, and somewhat intimidating. Where do I start? How do you build brains? Well, I began with making a commitment to put down my phone and be very intentional about wearing my brain building hat. From there, it was easy. I realized there is no need to purchase expensive toys, games, equipment, or DVDs in order to support brain development. It is the everyday interactions I engage in with my children that stimulate brain development. I just need to look for those opportunities.

It is really pretty simple and powerful. Your child will toss you an opportunity to build his brain, and all you have to do is respond with a meaningful reply; the brain will make connections.

As you can see, everyday interactions with your child present an opportunity for brain building.

Since learning about the serve-and-return concept, I have been purposeful and intentional in my interactions with my children. I now see myself as an architect of my sons’ brains. I thought I would share a few ideas I learned from the research as well as activities that I have implemented to be a brain builder.

Below are a few easy to implement brain building activities:

  • One-on-one time
    • The number one brain booster for children is one-on-one time with parents.
  • Hold, touch, and snuggle with your child
    • Touch is a child’s lifeline to security, attachment, and reassurance.
  • Make time each day to practice and encourage repetition of songs, stories, and other experiences
    • Few things build a child’s brain and open opportunities for learning more than a consistent repetition of healthy activities or experiences. Telling the same stories and singing the same songs over and over may feel boring to you, but it is not boring to children.
    • Children learn through repetition.
  • Talk, laugh, sing, play peek-a-boo, and read with your child – children need to hear language
    • The key to language development in a child’s brain is hearing language – lots of it.
    • Music and language not only introduce children to words, but help them learn rhythm, sequences, and spatial and math skills. 
  • Cook together
    • Cooking can help a child learn and practice some basic math concepts and build language skills.
    • The experience of creating meals with you can help build their self-confidence and lay the foundation for healthy eating habits.

After practicing this for a few months, I realized it wasn’t as hard or as intimidating as I thought. It was really turning everyday activities into opportunities to engage my children and allow the connections in their brains to ignite. It has been both fun and rewarding.

If you’re looking for additional information on serve and return and the brain development, I recommend checking out this video from Harvard University. This wonderful video explains how serve and return helps brain development. It is a pretty powerful video and demonstrates how the serve and return concept nourishes minds and sets the stage for later development and learning. Below is a link to the video:

Parents as Brain Builders | Twin Cities Moms Blog

Cara Johnson-Bader is the vice president of marketing and parent experiences at New Horizon Academy and serves on the board of Doing Good Together.  She is the wife of Craig, and the mother of two incredible and full of energy boys — Ben and Will. When not attending her sons’ snowboarding, skiing, and baseball sporting events, she can be found playing board games and reading with her boys. Learn more about New Horizon Academy at


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