The Abecedarian Project: high quality early childhood education and its impact on lifelong health

A great deal of research supports the idea that high quality early childhood education experiences are good for young children’s development. There are myriad benefits for children in high-quality programs, including, age-appropriate engagement for social and emotional health, brain development, and gross and fine motor skill development. Children learn important soft skills in a high-quality environment, like conflict resolution. The effects of a high-quality childhood education impact children’s futures as well. Kids from high-quality programs have higher college degree attainment, lower school dropout rates and much lower incarceration rates. Children from high-quality childhood programs are also healthier.

Preschool children visiting a greenhouse

A follow-up study of the children who participated in the Abecedarian Project, one of the most famous studies of the impact of high quality early childhood education, revealed positive impacts about high-quality early childhood education on long-term physical health. The Abecedarian Project was a study of high-quality early childhood care and education, supplemented with social service interventions, for 96 children in North Carolina in 1972-1977. The researchers have followed the children into adulthood, assessing them at ages five, eight, 12, 15, 21, 30, and 35. While the results of the study showed tremendous benefit to the children (and their families) all along the way, the health outcomes revealed in the most recent assessment were remarkable. The most recent findings “suggest those benefits both to people who receive high-quality education and care and to society at large may be even more comprehensive than research previously has shown. With substantial implications for health care and prevention policy around the globe, the project’s study in Science reports that children who received high-quality early care and education from birth until age five enjoy better physical health in their mid-30s than peers who did not.”

The study at age 35 determined that those in the program have lower rates of pre-hypertension and hypertension in their mid-30s, and a lower risk of experiencing coronary heart disease in the next 10 years. The men in the study also less frequently exhibit obesity in combination with hypertension, and none had metabolic syndrome at age 35, compared to 25% of control group men. Researcher Frances Campbell stated, “Good health is the bedrock upon which other lifetime accomplishments rest, and without it, other gains are compromised. Investing in early childhood programs has been shown to pay off in ways we did not anticipate 40 years ago when the Abecedarian study was founded.”

Finally, the study also revealed a significant cost saving. For every dollar spent on the program, $2.50 was saved “as a result of higher incomes, less need for education and government services, and reduced health care costs.”

Preschool children eating cereal at the table

Jump IN has been working to integrate nutrition and physical activity best practices in central Indiana early childhood systems since 2014. Through our partnership with Early Learning Indiana, more than 300 early childhood providers have completed the training program Taking Steps to Healthy Success, making healthier environments for more than 25,000 children. Healthier environments foster healthy choices – healthy choices that can last a lifetime.