Turn-Taking Play Strategies

Taking turns is a foundational skill for conversation and social interaction. This is what is frequently referred to as serve and return. 

A young man who is deafblind interacts with his teacher by playing a clapping game together.
A young man who is deafblind interacts with his teacher by playing a clapping game together.

Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences.

Serve and Return

Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University

Initially the child may not know how to take or give a turn. So at first, you watch what the child does with his or her body and you imitate these actions when he/she takes a brief pause.  Or you initiate some type of action like vocalizing or patting and then pause to see how the child responds. Does the child attempt some action or movement? Take that as a signal for you to repeat what you did. Pause again and wait for the child to signal for you to repeat that movement or action.

It is often best to start out using an imitation strategy, where the adult follows what the child does by imitating his actions. As the turn-taking is established, the adult might do something slightly different and then wait to see if the child will try to imitate or take some action. For example, if the game were rocking side-to-side the adult might change to moving back-and-forth. Does the child try to imitate that movement?  If he/she does, great! If not, just continue to focus on the serve and return interaction (Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University) of these turn-taking games.


Web training series for Interaction and Bonding : Turn-Taking

In this video, Outreach VI Consultant Sara Kitchen talks about the importance of turn-taking in developing a bond with a student and discusses various turn-taking games that can be used.

Hand Games:

These games can include other parts of the body, but we’d like to bring the focus around to hands, at some point, if possible. Teachers and students use their hands for a large number of tasks that are done at school. Students need to develop an interest in the activities of the hands of other people so that they can learn what the hands have to teach them. This starts with non-aversive interaction surrounding the hands.

In the video below, the teacher and the student both make minute movements with their hands. The movements that they make are different.


Object Games:

Some children reject objects, especially when introduced using hand-over-hand. Objects may need to be reintroduced in non-controlling, non-aversive ways in low-demand interactions.

In the video below, the student signals the teacher to take her turn by slightly moving the whistle at the beginning of the interaction, then signals her by putting her hand on the whistle. The teacher remains in contact with the student so that she is there to take her turn.


Auditory Games:

Sometimes a student may engage by making sounds with their mouths or with other parts of their body, such as stomping or clapping. We start by imitating them, but then may introduce some variation into our auditory play. We may also add any of these as fun breaks within a routine to help re-engage the student and reconnect if they have become distracted.

In the video below, the teacher re-engages the student in the hygiene routine by imitating her vocalizations.

Share Activities:

Children who have sensory deficits do not have access to the same information as their same age peers. For example, they may not know that other people, eat, brush their teach, etc. Children without sensory deficits have ample opportunities to observe activities multiple times before they are ever expected to participate. Before you expect a child to participate in an activity, show them how you do it!

In the video below, the teacher brushes her teeth while the student watches with his hands. She then brushes his teeth with the Nuk brush.