The summer months provide a much needed break from the rigors of formal schooling, but transitions from school to summer and back to school again can be stressful for kids accustomed to a routine - not to mention the slip in academic skills.

Vielka McFarlane, a veteran educator and founder of the Celerity Educational Group, a group of charter schools in South Central Los Angeles, says parents have a big job over the summer months, but that the long break can provide wonderful opportunities for social learning, which means gaining knowledge and skills through experiences. Traveling and cooking are great examples of social learning—an essential component to education. Take an important concept in science curriculum: the freezing point of water. “How can a kid who has never seen snow understand this concept easily? But if you can see the various states of matter going up a mountain, that kid is going to grasp that concept a lot easier,” McFarlane says.

So, how do you help prepare your child for the school year to come, while providing social learning opportunities? McFarlane offers these tips:

Take Time to Reflect At the beginning of the summer, be sure to reflect upon the last academic year with your child, and make a plan for the year to come. “Making a plan eliminates the fear of the unknown, and everyone likes feeling that they're in control.” Some point questions to keep in mind are:

  • What was the best thing about this year?
  • What were your successes and how do we line up more successes for the coming school year? For example, “This year you learned to write four-sentence paragraphs, but next year you will be expected to write eight-sentence paragraphs. How will we get ready for that?”
  • Be sure to ask a lot of “Why” questions. For example, frame an issue that was faced this year and then ask “Why?”

McFarlane says parents should be sure to keep this conversation simple. “There's a lot going on at the end of the year. If you talk too much they will get overwhelmed,” she said. Discuss this plan again just before the school year begins.

Make Conversation Summer provides some great down-time in which to open up the lines of communication with your child. Even simple questions at the dinner table, such as “What did you learn today?” can create opportunities for learning outside of a textbook. McFarlane says it's easier than parents think to tie conversation into the state standards. “A lot of info can apply to the standards, and you don't have to be a college grad,” she says.

Share Your Passions This is a great time to share your own interests with your child whether that be cooking, fishing, knitting, woodworking, or traveling. Make sure to give your child responsibilities during these activities to truly allow him to dig in. If you're cooking, allow him to measure all the ingredients and read out the recipe. If you're traveling, let him do some of the trip planning. McFarlane says parents would be surprised how these activities have practical application to the curriculum.

Introduce Your Child to New Things As a single mom and educator, McFarlane sees summer as an opportunity to let her son “stretch his wings in other areas he's not able to do in the school year.” After nine months of structure, McFarlane says it's good do something completely different, like rock climbing or exposure to the arts through plays, museums and concerts. But, it's also important that these experiences remain tied to learning. McFarlane says parents should keep in touch with their child's strengths and weaknesses, and try to tailor their summer activities to areas where they need support: if your child has attention problems in school, play chess. If she's a reluctant reader, carve out at 30 minutes a day of reading time where everyone in the family sits down with a book, newspaper or magazine. “I make it a point to take this opportunity to put myself in the driver's seat as keeper of the continuity between school learning and social learning,” she says.

Keep a Routine “'Laxing your routine is asking for trouble,” McFarlane says. “Kids need routine. That's the one thing that keeps them grounded and makes them feel safe.” She says while it's okay to loosen the routine over the summer, with later bed times and alternate meal times, it's important to return to the school time schedule about a week before school starts. This will ease their transition back to school, reduce stress and help kids to focus on the year ahead.