The importance of play in the school environment

How teachers can use PCIT skills to engage in student-directed activities
Dr Nicole Quiterio, Consultant Psychiatrist
The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t let their imaginations get hampered by the constraints of reality.

Children often see the world around them as exciting and new. They see an ordinary sofa or couch in the lounge as the basis of an ingenious spacecraft capable of swiftly crossing several galaxies traveling at the speed of light. A regular backyard becomes shaped into the trendiest restaurant with all kinds of fascinating food combinations not usually available in the restaurant and hospitality sector. Children are able to size up their siblings and peers and try things without fear. Even when we look into adolescence, we see glimpses of their imagination and creativity although pressures from adults may start to dampen their extraordinary thinking. We see some young people who dare to dream, are innovative and push boundaries in new and useful ways. All of these stages are part of the normal developmental process and is essential in order for children to thrive. 

Donald Winnicott, an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, called play the transitional space or the space where thoughts and feelings can be expressed without the child feeling too overwhelmed (Blake, 2011). Play can be the in-between of reality and fantasy, where children are able to work through their feelings. Sigmund Freud described the “fort da” game (German for "gone" and "there") where his one and a half year-old grandson would throw small objects like a wooden spoon attached to a string over the side of his cot. His mother would then retrieve the spool and give it back to him. Freud theorised that the appearance and disappearance of the spoon highlighted the boy working through the anxiety associated with separating from his mother, to whom he was very attached. His grandson was using creative play as a way to deal with basic childhood anxiety through representation.


In the 1970s, Sheila Eyberg developed Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which is a combination of play and behavioural therapy. PCIT can benefit parents and caregivers. It focusses on authoritative parenting and teaches parents to have a balanced mix of responsiveness and nurturance with clear communication and boundaries. Whilst PCIT was designed to support parent-child interaction and relationships, many of the skills taught in this process are beneficial for teachers, educators, counsellors, and anyone who supports young people. 

Child or student directed activities


One of the many skills taught during PCIT is focussed on child-directed play. This involves allowing a young person to play without pulling in the reigns which leads to increases in executive functioning and overall self-esteem. With parents or teachers actively participating alongside the child, evidence-based medicine shows a stronger emotional bond with the young person. The child feels that parent or teacher trusts her ideas and decisions. With this trust, she feels more confident in her abilities to plan and reason (executive functioning skills).  

Consider this in the classroom. Many activities rely on students following instructions and boundaries. What if you were to include more student directed activities? How would this change your relationship with your students? Would this further develop their executive functioning skills?

P-R-I-D-E skills


PCIT makes use of the acronym “PRIDE” skills to help parents or caregivers remember the key interactions when engaging in child-directed play. When engaging in student directed activities, consider how you could make use of the PCIT PRIDE skills. 

Below are some child-parent/caregiver and student-teacher examples. 

P-R-I-D-E skills



Praising appropriate behaviour of the young person. You are acknowledging their hard work and creativity. Be sure to be descriptive and name what behaviour or action you want to see more. 

  • Parent/caregiver: “Wow, you are working really hard to balance those blocks.” 
  • Teacher: “Well done! You have been focused on this task for the last 10 minutes!”



Reflecting back what the young person has said to you. You are giving them your full attention which is often calming. 

  • Child: “I built a castle.” 
  • Parent/caregiver: “I see that you built a castle.” 
  • Student: “I have tried to answer the question but am stuck on this part.” 
  • Teacher: “I see that you have tried hard to answer the question. Let’s work together for this next part.”



Follow the young person’s lead. This shows you are engaged with him. 

  • Child: “I am going to build a large castle.” 
  • Parent/caregiver: “I will build a large castle too.” 
  • Student: “I am going to add more to my beaker.” 
  • Teacher: “I will add more to my beaker too.



Describe what the young person is doing. This fosters attention and connection during play.

  • Parent/caregiver: “You are putting a white block over a grey block to build your castle.” 


Experiment with this in class. Describe your students’ activity and see how much longer they remain engaged in a task compared to time engaged without this attentive description.



Show interest in playing with the young person. This demonstrates you enjoy spending time with her.

  • Parent/caregiver: “This castle is so amazing.” 
  • Teacher: “Wow, this art piece is very creative!” 


While many of these skills seem obvious and simplistic, they are often overlooked. Research has shown that just 5 minutes of “special play time” using PRIDE skills increases relationship cohesion if done regularly. If the research shows improvement in the parent-child relationship, would you consider exploring this in the teacher-student relationship?

Give PRIDE skills a try and see how a child or student responds!


About the author



Dr. Nicole Quiterio is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who has worked in specialist mental health services, both in the United States and New Zealand. She completed her training at Harvard South Shore and Stanford University. Dr. Quiterio has served in a variety of roles including senior medical officer, medical director and director of research, and has been actively involved in the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on the Disaster and Trauma Issues Committee and Committee on Quality Issues. She was a Public Psychiatry Fellow with the American Psychiatry Association and worked with the Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Quiterio specialises in a wide range of psychotherapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, Play Therapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. She previously completed a two-year psychoanalytic psychotherapy training program with the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and is currently a child analytic trainee at the Institute of Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in Sydney.


  • Blake, P. (2011). Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books Ltd.
  • de Botton, A. (2022). The Good Enough Parent. London: The School of Life.
  • Freud, S. (1989). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 599-601.
  • PCIT International. (2015-2018). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)