Every child knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
But at the Grassmarket Nursery in Edinburgh, the bears start off as wooden templates which can be stuck on to white boards, then evolve into circles (still on the boards), before the children find the symbols replicated throughout the nursery, in teddy bears, in pretend bowls of porridge and spoons and so on.
The symbols are used to stimulate the children's imaginations but also to expand their spatial sense. They are asked to place the bears in order of size, for instance, thus learning the concept of small, medium and large; they are asked to put Daddy bear "in front of" or "before" Mummy bear; they are then asked to replicate the concept of "in front of" when they line up at the door.
The tale is the basis of an early years curriculum experiment which has its origins in the ideas of the Russian educational psychologist Vygotsky, who developed a theory of symbolic literacy based on using signs to encourage cognitive development.
Barbara Robertson, the headteacher at Grassmarket Nursery, was familiar with Vygotsky's work through her training as an early years specialist.
Then, when she saw a demonstration of a Vygotsky-inspired English early years curriculum programme at a Tapestry conference, she became determined to explore whether it would add value to the Scottish 3-5 curriculum.
Ms Robertson saw the Key to Learning programme demonstrated by Galina Dolya, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Education who runs an early years school in Hertfordshire with her English husband, as a means of enriching and giving depth to the nursery curriculum.
With the help of Niki Powers, of Edinburgh University's psychology department (who is finishing her doctorate on the quality of communication), she set up a study of 20 children, about a third of whom have English as an additional language. Using the visual-spatial development module of the Key to Learning programme, they saw benefits for all the children, but particularly the group who needed more help to grasp many of our cultural norms and more help with language. They found those children spent more time listening to the teacher and watching their peers.
There was evidence of good peer support and increased empathy between children.
The sessions seemed to stimulate a great deal of creative thinking. Some children who understood a task quickly and achieved the learning outcomes immediately, sometimes lost interest while they waited for the other children to catch up. Those with a short attention span benefited from practising paying attention.
The study confirmed Ms Robertson's belief in the importance of employing qualified, educated staff in early years education.
"We felt that our own development had a very positive effect on the children's learning as we worked through the sessions together," she says.
"We would suggest that having staff who are trained to understand the educational impact of their communication with children is of paramount importance to give children the best possible start in their life and their learning."
In North Ayrshire, a larger six-month pilot using a development games module from the Key to Learning programme was undertaken last year. It involved nine nursery and eight P1 classes. Again, the decision to explore the material was prompted by the desire to see if these ideas would offer depth and enrichment to the early years curriculum.
The materials are aimed at developing cognitive skills through exploration and play, promoting creativity, self-regulation and encouraging symbolic literacy. They introduce different symbolic languages, the theory being that once children have acquired symbolic literacy it is easier for them to cope as they meet new and ever more demanding learning tasks.
A team led by Shonah McKechnie, a chartered psychologist in North Ayrshire's educational psychology department, led the evaluation. "One of the things we were excited about was the symbolic literacy aspect," she says. "If the children mastered symbolic literacy, would it add to their early literacy? Then, presumably, numeracy and literacy would hook in."
She searched in vain for evidence to support this theory but anecdotal evidence from classroom teachers appears to back up her instinct. The council hopes to win Future Learning and Teaching funding to extend its research.
The P1 class at Winton Primary in Ardrossan, was part of the pilot study last year. Their teacher, Sheena Dunlop, who has just completed an MEd in thinking skills and hopes soon to achieve chartered teacher status, says:
"It maybe wasn't scientific, and I don't know if it was because it was a good class or because of the time spent in small groups and the discourse they had, but the overall picture of literacy did improve."
She has been won over by the developmental games and is using them again this year, combining them with her own strategies for encouraging pupils to think and reflect more about their learning.
For example, her pupils put on "magic glasses" - one of the suggested external mediators Ms Dolya says help children to learn - in various situations. They may wear them to find blue objects in the room, or to match the red and yellow colours in pipe-cleaner figures to objects displayed on a tray. When the children have to give their news, wearing the glasses can help the shy, diffident pupils who don't want to talk about home, or have no news, to take on a new persona.
In another game, "What can it be?", children are told that an artist was suddenly called away and has left a number of drawings unfinished. They are asked to complete them from the basic shape of, say, a double circle, a rhomboid or a squiggly line. The results demonstrate the power of their imagination.
In a game new to the class, Mrs Dunlop shows a small group a diagram resembling a bar chart. The small bar means they have to tap their musical instrument softly, the big one means they have to bang it loudly. Before long, they are playing their percussion instruments according to a sequence of diagrams, effectively reading music.
Interestingly, the boy described by Mrs Dunlop as a particularly challenging pupil, proves to be one of the best at the game and gives it his full attention.
"Sometimes the children who are good thinkers lack confidence. They are not necessarily the cleverest in the class, but they do well in this. It is a no lose situation: every answer is accepted and respected," she says.
Key to Learning: a Vygotskyan approach to early years education, devised by Galina Dolya and Nikolai Veraksa, professor of psychology at Moscow pedagogical state universityThe programme consists of 12 modules: sensory maths, story grammar, expressive movement, logic, visual-spatial, role-play, construction, developmental games, artographics, exploration, creative modelling, and mathematics. An individual module comprises up to 60 sessions and comes with a Key to Learning introduction, teacher's manual, resource pack on CD-Rom (containing material to be printed for use by children in each lesson) and ideas for parentswww.keytolearning.com
WHAT TEACHERS SAY
'It's highlighted a number of children whose thinking is quite developed and has allowed them to shine, despite struggling in other areas'
'The younger ones in particular have come on the most in terms of thinking for themselves and just having the chance to talk'
'It's made me think there maybe is room for a wee bit more structure in different areas of the nursery'
'The staff look at everything differently and don't just presume what the responses will be'
'I think I have undermined their learning. I think they're capable of more than I give them credit for'
'Their ability to work co-operatively has improved, I would say above levels I would normally expect at this stage of P1'