Orientation Schema – 23 Activities + Definition + Tips


Girl climbing a rope ladder in a forest

Orientation schemas are when children are interested in learning about how objects look from different angles.

Do you have a child that enjoys lying with their head on the floor as they play with toy cars?

Or like to look through their legs at things?

These are both orientation schema behaviors in action.

Rotation schemas can be supported by many activities, including climbing up steps, trees, and climbing frames, cloud gazing, child-friendly yoga, and soft play.

In many years of teaching children between the ages of 3 and 5, I have learned that it is important to do two things:

  1. Spot when schemas are happening
  2. And then know how to support those schemas further

In this article, I’m going to quickly look at exactly what an orientation schema is, and then dive into the 21 ultimate orientation schema activities that you can try.

These things can be tried by educators, teachers, or parents. Schema play usually requires very simple resources or objects that you may well have to hand, and so can happen pretty much anywhere with a little support.

What Is A Schema?

The simplest way of describing it is that a schema is a repeated pattern of behavior.

For example, if a child is fascinated by wrapping wool around objects repeatedly, then they may well be exhibiting a rotation schema.

Likewise, if they enjoy moving objects around a space in a variety of ways (such as using buckets or trailers), then they are exhibiting a transporting schema.

Schemas are repeated patterns of behavior that allow children to explore ideas and thoughts. (Source)

They also help children express their thinking.

Supporting Schemas

The reason that we go on about schemas is that help children to learn in an accelerated way.

Supporting schemas help children to think, flourish, and make excellent progress through play.

That’s really what it is about!

So, for example, if you see that a child has a rotation schema (they are interested in things rotating), then they may be really excited to use whisks and spoons to stir puddles, mud, and water in a water tray.

By adding whisks and spoons into these learning spaces, you harness their natural instincts and allow them to learn to their potential through learning behaviors that interest them.

What Is An Orientation Schema?

Children with an orientation schema are learning about how objects look from different angles.

They experiment with balance, height, and weight.

These children may like to hang upside down.

Or you may see them lie on the floor.

As a side note (and this is definitely something worth knowing about), these children often show lots of energy!

Let’s take a look at a comprehensive list of 19 activities that support an orientation schema.

23 Activities That Support An Orientation Schema

1. Cloud Gazing

This is a beautiful mindfulness activity that is great for those with an orientation schema.

The children lie on their backs on the ground and gaze at the clouds.

Talk about what shapes, pictures you can see. You can link this to storytelling, and making up stories in the clouds.

2. Child-Friendly Yoga

Yoga positions really encourage children to get into unusual positions with both their bodies and their heads.

I find yoga positions are more successful with children if they mimic a simple animal, and have some kind of catchy name.

Some good positions for orientation schemas are:

The Turtle

For this position, the children lie on their back and pull up their knees into their chest. They are in a ball, like a turtle lying on its back.

They gently rock backward and forwards, from head to toe.

This is great for back flexibility, as well as gently massaging the spine on the floor.

Your head position and viewpoint are continually changing as you rock (hence the orientation schema).

Giraffe Pose

For a giraffe pose, stand with one foot in front of the other.

Lift both arms high above your head. This is the giraffe’s head and neck.

Girl doing giraffe pose in yoga
The initial stance of the giraffe pose

Slowly let your arms now descend in front of you (keeping them straight), and then reach down and touch your most outstretched foot.

Then slowly move back to your original position.

Downward Facing Dog

This is a really classic yoga pose, that is a good one for children with an orientation schema.

You basically try to achieve an upside-down ‘v’ shape with your body.

Your body will be at a ninety-degree angle around your mid-point, with legs and arms straight and touching the floor.

Boy doing downward facing dog yoga pose
Downward facing dog

3. Soft Play

Soft play is pretty much an orientation schema child’s dream!

You spend pretty much the entire time in a non-vertical position.

Climbing through tubes, crawling through nets, going sideways, diagonally, upside down…

Soft play provides a huge number of other benefits also, such as gross motor skills, coordination, and just having fun with others.

4. Going Down Slides In Unusual Ways

You will notice there are some children that like to just go down a slide the same way each time, and then others that will experiment with pretty much any possible position.

An orientation schema is certainly a part of that.

Children will try going down sideways, head-first, upside down, and any other way you can think of.

Many schools and nurseries will have rules about not going down head-first. This makes sense, as you see a lot of injuries from trying this.

5. Pallet Stacks

A stack of pallets provides an excellent opportunity for a very cheap and simple climbing frame. You probably need about ten to twenty pallets, securely stacked, for this opportunity.

Pallets can often be sourced for free from local shops or businesses.

Climbing them is good as a risky play opportunity.

It is also good for orientation schemas and seeing the world in a different way from the top.

6. Walking Along Walls

All of my own children have loved doing this for many years.

Obviously, this needs to be done safely, so the types of walls I am talking about here are low walls, where a fall would not cause too much damage.

Along with walls, children also enjoy walking along low railings or curb stones, or other simple low structures that change their perspective and make them higher than they were before.

Holding their hand to facilitate this experience is often a wise idea.

7. Going Up Steps

This is so simple! But if you see a child going repeatedly up and down a set of stairs, then an orientation schema is probably the reason why.

8. Ladders

I recently went around an amazing outdoor preschool that had small ladders pretty much everywhere!

They were placed to help the children access all sorts of different activities – rolling balls down tubes, or climbing onto a branch of a tree.

Ladders, however small, really stimulate an orientation schema by providing height and a different perspective.

9. Ropes

Rope can be used in a variety of ways.

In one forest school I worked in, we had this tree with a rope around the branch:

A rope hoist suspended on a forest tree
A rope hoist suspended around a tree

The idea was that one child sat on the piece of wood that you can see at one end.

A team of children held the other end and tried to haul them up into the air.

You can see a white line on the tree – that was the highest their feet were allowed to go in the air for safety reasons. The children respected this rule well.

An activity like this is great for orientation schemas.

10. Large Loose Parts Like Planks

By simply providing lots of large loose parts, such as planks, children will be able to experiment with orientation schemas themselves.

Planks can create walkways, or be stacked against things like crates to make ramps.

Children can walk up slopes, or create bridges across obstacles.

Large loose parts for outdoor use
A fantastic selection of large outdoor loose parts

11. Looking At Vehicle Wheels

This is a behavior that has a couple of schemas working at the same time.

A rotation schema is definitely part of the equation here. Children with this schema are interested in things that rotate, and the fascination of wheels turning is part of the enjoyment here.

However, orientation schemas definitely come into play here.

You will often see children that play with that cars, lying on the floor with their heads on the ground.

This helps them achieve a different visual angle.

12. Tree Stumps

In one school I worked in, we were quite upset when a few of the big trees in the outdoor area were cut down (because they were partly dead).

However, this provided some excellent tree stumps, that were used for a variety of reasons forevermore.

One very simple way of using them was when children could climb them and jump off. Good for achieving a sensation of height, and a change of perspective.

13. Climbing Frames

Climbing frames offer an excellent opportunity for experiencing orientation schemas in a plethora of ways.

There is lots of crawling onto surfaces, going up angles, going higher or lower, and jumping downwards.

14. Twister

This is a great game for children as soon as they can recognize colors.

With younger ones, I often leave out the ‘right’ or ‘left’ element of the game. So instead of saying, ‘Right leg red’, we just do ‘Leg red.’ Then the other free leg will go onto the next color when the leg comes up again.

Children will end up in all sorts of strange head and body positions.

15. Crawling Through Tubes

As well as being an excellent activity for gross motor and coordination, crawling through tubes provides stimulation for orientation schemas.

You will see children do the following:

  • Crawl through sideways
  • Go through upside down
  • Go through with others, often side by side
  • Stay inside the tubes, often sitting upside down

16. Monkey Bars

Though these can be challenging for younger children, some children will be able to access these to an extent from the age of about 4 upwards.

There are lots of swinging forwards and backward, and side to side involved, so perfect for orientation schemas!

17. Sit On Adult’s Shoulders

This is more of an activity for parents than for an educational setting.

But it’s a classic activity and one that has a lot to do with orientation schemas.

From up on an adult’s shoulders, a child sees the world from a different much higher perspective. The ground is a lot further away, and there is that feeling of vulnerability and being high up as well.

18. Trees To Climb

This is, of course, one of the all-time classic pastimes of childhood.

While climbing trees, your head will be in all sorts of different angles.

Also, there is the height involved, and seeing the world below differently the higher up you go.

19. Roll Down Hills

Some children may be resistant to trying this, whereas others will do it for hours!

This is one of the ultimate orientation schema activities!

Your head will be spinning around continually, as you see sky then floor, sky then floor, in a whizzing blur of sensation!

Good weather-proof clothing is essential for this if you doing it on any slightly wet grass surface.

A classic forest school activity that is related is a downhill mudslide. Once again, suitable clothing is a must.

20. Natural Obstacle Courses

Some large loose parts are often the ideal way to create largescale natural obstacle courses.

Children can create these themselves.

Some good resources would include:

  • Crates
  • Planks
  • Stumps
  • Pallets
  • Branches
  • Tires

Children can assemble these in all sorts of ways to make walkways and obstacle courses. They then experiment with height, balance, and orientation.

21. Bug Hunts Using Binoculars And Magnifying Glasses

This is a less obvious idea in this list, but definitely, an activity that involves an orientation schema.

In searching for small bugs, there will be all sorts of looking under logs, looking up and down tree branches, searching under stones, and generally looking up and looking down.

22. See-Saws

See-saws are great for providing a continual change in height and visual perspective.

They are also good for balance, and gross motor skills.

23. Swings

Swings come in all sorts of designs, and all promote orientation schema interest.

Playground swings provide a real feeling of speed.

Simple rope swings suspended from trees also offer opportunities to swing and rotate.

You can also create things like tire swings.

A tire swing
A tire swing suspended from a tree

Orientation Schemas – The Big Picture

Children with an orientation schema will easily be able to experiment with orientation themselves, as long as you can provide just a few simple resources.

They will naturally be interested in interacting with objects in a range of positions and angles.

It is a schema that requires big resources and involves lots of outdoor movement.

Try not to stop children from sitting upside down! Or from lying in bizarre positions around the setting. This is helping them learn!

Good luck promoting orientation schemas with your children!

Martin Williams

Hi, I'm Martin Williams, creator of the Early Impact Learning blog. I'm a preschool and early years teacher of ten years experience, and I also run practical training courses for nurseries and schools.

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