Whether summertime means languorous days at the beach or full-time camp, the months away from a regular routine offer kids a chance to boost a vital set of skills: Making and keeping strong friendships.

What’s that, you say? Don’t kids just know how to make friends? Not necessarily. Between school and after-school activities, children’s time is far more structured than in days past. As a result, kids today have fewer opportunities to practice the social skills needed for being — and making — a good friend.

Strong social skills include everything from having empathy and showing an interest in others to starting a conversation, giving compliments, and taking turns. And summer is the perfect time for youngsters to practice these skills and build their confidence in the process — all of which will help when they return to school in the fall.

Here are some simple steps to build on your kids’ friendship skills:

  1. What’s a friend anyway?

    Don’t assume your children know what being a good friend entails. Talk about taking turns, sharing, and showing an interest in others and how these actions will make peers and classmates feel good and want to spend time with them. Ask your kids how they feel when someone doesn’t share with them or makes them feel left out. By explaining how other children feel the same way, this will help them develop empathy.

  2. Mingle more

    The more your children interact with others, the better they’ll get at it. And having them meet a wide variety of people in different situations will let them practice under different circumstances. Even if your family is planning to stay home this summer, make sure your kids get out to places where they’ll meet other kids — for example, the playground, the public pool, and children’s hour at the library. If they’re going to camp or taking classes, encourage them to talk to new kids and try to make friends.

  3. One “Hi” at a time

    If your kids are especially shy, make a plan to help them get comfortable making new friends. Set small, daily goals — the first step might be to encourage them to smile and greet one or two new people each day. Once they’ve mastered this, up the ante a bit and have them add a conversation starter (such as a question about the other person’s day or a compliment).

  4. Just add drama

    Since most social skills are learned by watching and imitating others, it makes sense to role-play the kinds of social situations that make your children uncomfortable or nervous. You might feel silly acting out an interaction between kids, but it really does help your children to practice in a safe place. Try several possible responses so that they understand there can be many outcomes to any interaction. If your children want to confront a friend who hurt their feelings, for instance, role-play an encounter where the other child apologizes, and another where the child continues to tease them. Talk about what the next step should be in each situation.

  5. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

    When you see your children making a kind gesture, be sure to praise them for it. “That was nice of you to give Joe another turn after he dropped the ball. That’s being a good friend.”

    You’ve told your children what makes a good friend — now it’s time to talk about what will stop a friendship in its tracks. Teach them not to brag, put others down, be a sore loser, or hog conversations. If you hear them doing any of these things, gently remind them that a good friend doesn’t do that. Also ask your children how they think their friend responded: “How do you think that made him feel? Does it look like he’s happy?” It’s important for kids to understand the power they have on others, and this is a good way for yours to start.