Playing in the garden nurtures something that a lot of us have abandoned a long time ago — our inner child.

Think about it. Kids are OK with coloring exuberantly outside the lines. When do we stop?

One of renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget’s most widely accepted tenets is that unlike adults, children aren’t limited by what they don’t yet know. He theorized that to become well-developed, children need to discover new concepts and learn what works and what doesn’t. As they begin to decide for themselves, they map out how they will approach things later.

Starting early with bright colors, moving objects and trying things out by touching, tasting and the like, we start to compare stuff and figure out patterns for how activities — sports, behaving in public, planting by seasons, etc. — are done. It’s when we learn to follow rules and conform with whatever it takes to fit in, get along with others. This kind of box invites normal people to develop abstract ideas — to think for ourselves.

Along the way, many of us settle into familiar routines. Based more or less by what and how we learned as children, we surround ourselves with like-minded others and accept those norms.

We stop playing.

Funny, but as kids play, doing things without regard to reality, they actually expect to make mistakes. Only instead of giving up and saying, “I can’t do that,” they think, “I haven’t learned that yet.” Then, they try a different approach. Like playing with a piece of string, they strive to figure it out. When they do, it gets assimilated — becomes part of who they are.

Doesn’t this sorta follow how we learn to garden, no matter our age?

The keys to learning quickly like a child are simple: A desire to garden, a lack of self-consciousness and the ability to roll with mistakes.

Starting with flowers, butterflies, fragrances, tastes, then deciding what does best for us, and how it’s done in an orderly way. And we figure our (or are instructed in) how it’s supposed to be done and in what fashion. And we join the neighborhood in coloring inside the lines.

But not everyone does. There are free spirits all around who cheerfully do their own thing without really hurting anyone. They’re like those folks who just love to fish, with no real intention of ever catching or keeping what they catch. And there are lots of gardeners like this as well; maybe you’re one.

Unlike formal gardeners who stick with the comfortable and with what others believe, these determined independent gardeners (we call ’em DIGrs) continue to explore, imagine, pretend, create, build and think outside the box. Holding themselves open to new ideas, they aren’t afraid to try and learn from new things and adjust accordingly.

They grow way too many flowers, often planting clashing colors, because it really doesn’t matter. They have one too many gnomes and smile when a dragonfly lands on their bottle tree. They sit in a porch swing and just watch the rain.

And they share with others, maybe even growing a little rosemary or oregano along the curb, where they encourage young families to come pick a little for cooking with later. And they don’t care that they don’t know Latin names.

In short, they play, even with others though they do get a bit fussy when someone starts organizing and making rules.

So, where better for adults, yearning for an earlier age of more color, senses, simplicity, freedom of worries and rules, to find that spirit again than in an informal little garden.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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