Kindergarten and even preschool teachers know they're not the first teacher for their students. The parent is the first and most influential teacher, but local schools are active in providing tools for parents to do their jobs well.

Parents as Teachers, supported by a state grant and both Pratt and Skyline school districts, is a free program for parents of children from birth to age three. A recent grant from the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research, backs their service up even earlier.

Pratt County Parents as Teachers is one of 54 recipients of a grant to provide helpful information to mothers through pregnancy and the first year of their babies' lives. Women who sign up for the service by texting BABY to 511411 (or BEBE in Spanish) receive free text messages each week. As an incentive, P.A.T. received $1,000 to give 60 newborn size diapers to each woman who signs up.

Jennifer Winfrey, pregnant with her second child, said she has received information about healthcare resources — she doesn't qualify, but it's good information for women who might not otherwise get good prenatal care. Texts also provide information about what to expect in pregnancy, breastfeeding tips and developmental milestones for infants.

Text4baby is effective because it gets essential health information to mothers quickly and easily, using a technology they use regularly, the KU office of public affairs notes.

A family doesn't have to be enrolled in Parents as Teachers to participate in Text4baby.

P.A.T. includes group parent meetings, free developmental screenings, personal visits from a parent educator, a weekly play group and help in accessing community services and agencies.

Misty Piester, P.A.T. coordinator and parent educator, visits 17 families each month, sharing age-appropriate child development and parenting information. She always has an activity ready for the children, something simple that doesn't require fancy supplies, but encourages skill development. For example, pushing colorful pipe cleaners through the holes in a kitchen strainer promotes fine motor skills.

Between 20 and 25 families attend play groups held each Wednesday from 10 to 11 a.m. at the USD 382 ACE (old Pratt High) building. Last Wednesday, about a half-dozen 1- and 2-year-olds gathered a fleet of cozy cube cars for outside play, but true to the nature of kids, soon abandoned them to climb and slide on a colorful play structure or check out the pea gravel on the playground.

There's no curriculum, no agenda, not even a lot of direction for playgroup.

"We're just playing; kids learn by play," Piester said.

"Parents are the first teachers in a child's life," she continued. "Our goal is to give parents more tools, more support and create a better outcome for the child."

Parents can see if their child is doing the things other children the same age are doing, and if not, learn ways to encourage development, or if necessary, get additional help for a child.

"If you think there's a problem, we're that middle guy (before consulting a professional)" Piester said. She also emphasized that early intervention for children who are not hitting the developmental milestones is a key to success.

Piester is a Pratt High graduate and has a degree in family studies and human services from Kansas State University. She is married to Austin Piester, a Skyline graduate, and civil engineer for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. They have two sons, ages 5 and 2.