Dr. Sparling and young child on woman's lap.

The Abecedarian Project is a landmark study that began in 1972, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, led by Dr. Craig Ramey and Dr. Joseph Sparling. The study included 111 children born into extremely impoverished life circumstances. The intervention involved intensive learning and social-emotional supports, starting in infancy and continuing until at least kindergarten entry, for children and their families. The Abecedarian Project conducted research to determine if providing theory-based, active learning experiences could produce significant benefits in language and learning for children from highly impoverished, multi-risk families (who were known to be at risk for poor school achievement). Over the past 40 years, numerous research studies have been conducted, and now Abecedarian is regularly cited in child development literature as one of the most effective programs for improving social and economic outcomes of vulnerable children.

Listen as Dr. Sparling describes the original Abecedarian Project, key elements of the Abecedarian Approach and explains what the word Abecedarian means and why it was chosen for the project.

The 4 elements of the Abecedarian Approach are Language Priority, Conversational Reading, LearningGames, and Enriched Caregiving. The videos below, filmed at Lord Selkirk Park Child Care Centre, give more information about each element.


Dr. Sparling explains in the next clip why the Abecedarian Project was developed for children living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and experiencing challenges that can affect their early development.

What were the results of the original research study? Dr. Sparling provides a summary of the long-term impacts related to education in the video below.

Click through the following slides to find a summary of the outcomes of the Abecedarian Project.

A cost-benefit analysis of the Abecedarian Project (2017), conducted by Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman, found that "high quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment—a rate substantially higher than the 7-10% return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds.... significant gains are realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors and employment." Summary: A Comprehensive Approach to Early Childhood Development.

In the next clip, listen to some of the unexpected findings from the study.

The children in the original study are now in their 40’s. 97 of the 111 participants (or 87%) are still involved with the study. As they are followed, findings continue to show the long-term health benefits of high-quality early childcare. The following link, from the Heckman Equation, provides more details about these findings, as well as public policy recommendations. Link: Abecedarian and Health.

Since the original study, the Abecedarian Approach has been used successfully in center-based care, home visiting programs, family day homes, and public school pre-K settings. Today, the Abecedarian Approach is one of the few evidence-based, proven programs that integrate basic principles of human learning and development into a fun, affordable, and effective approach to early childhood education.

This is a map of all the Abecedarian Projects around the world.

For more information, visit the Abecedarian Education Foundation.