Research on navigation has shown that humans and laboratory animals recover their sense of orientation primarily by detecting geometric properties of large-scale surface layouts (e.g. room shape), but the reasons for the primacy of layout geometry have not been clarified. In four experiments, we tested whether 4-year-old children reorient by the geometry of extended wall-like surfaces because such surfaces are large and perceived as stable, because they serve as barriers to vision or to locomotion, or because they form a single, connected geometric figure. Disoriented children successfully reoriented by the shape of an arena formed by surfaces that were short enough to see and step over. In contrast, children failed to reorient by the shape of an arena defined by large and stable columns or by connected lines on the floor. We conclude that preschool children's reorientation is not guided by the functional relevance of the immediate environmental properties, but rather by a specific sensitivity to the geometric properties of the extended three-dimensional surface layout.