Play Date with Natasha Grogan

Natasha Grogan loves plants so much that whilst in labour with her son she re-arranged the room so she could look out the window at the trees between contractions! “I always feel better when I can see a plant,” says the educator, organic gardener and founder of The Sage Garden – a provider of holistic gardening, music and yoga incursions for children and families in Melbourne.

“I really, really love plants,” Natasha tells me. She also really, really loves children. She’d always wanted to work with them, so when she turned 18 she took off to London to work as a nanny. It was there she discovered organic gardening.

My passion for teaching children to connect with nature, to respect the world we live in and how to grow their own organic food developed from there,” she says.

Her passion ignited, she studied an advanced diploma in Rudolph Steiner education, a bachelor of education and a diploma of horticulture. In 2008 she began teaching as a garden specialist at the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. From here, it was a mere hop, skip and jump to launching The Sage Garden in 2013. I caught up with Natasha to find out more about her thoughts on plants and play, because after all, she’s built her career around the words.

Natasha Grogan and Weasel the dog

Can you please tell us a little about The Sage Garden?
The Sage Garden is a Melbourne based business with a focus on teaching children, families and communities how to grow their own organic food. I work with families in their own homes – either building new vegetable gardens or working with existing gardens. I also run gardening incursions with kindergartens, primary schools, community groups, and at events.

The business has evolved a lot since 2013 – I’m incredibly proud that The Sage Garden is now a holistic education provider – offering organic gardening, music therapy and yoga incursions! I wanted to be able to offer services that support and guide other educators to incorporate education that is holistic, beneficial and fun for children. I also realised I was in a wonderful position to give children the tools needed to manage their way through this fast world while staying connected to themselves, to those around them and to the world they live in.

This all comes back to this idea of play. I want children to to be exposed to the wonder of childhood, to play, to have fun and to be adventurous.

I love playing, but struggle to convince myself of its importance. Do you think adults need to play more? Have you got any hot tips for me?
Life as an adult means you’re in your head a lot, always thinking, planning, worrying blah, blah, blah. It is so important to let all that stuff go and to hook into some play as much as you can.

As an adult play comes in lots of different forms. I love card games and board games, but I don’t do that much. I love to have a dance or to go see a band, but I don’t do that much either! I reckon as an adult anything that gets you to laugh and feel lighter is a form of play. My husband and I often ask each other silly questions like “name six Nick Cage films”. I like stuff like that – it’s just a little jaunt away from reality, that’s play.

How does playing with plants and kids nurture your own sense of creativity and playfulness? Do you reckon it keeps you young?
Playing with plants is my biggest creative outlet. I have done the flowers for quite a few friends weddings, including my own and I always say “We’ll just have a play and see what happens”. When you work with plants it’s pretty hard to go wrong – there are so many beautiful choices, colours and varieties, all the hard work has been done! I also like getting the chance to redesign our veggie garden at our rental house each season.

I am always thinking about fun ways we can develop our garden to get the kids outside and playing in it. It definitely keeps me young at heart, but man, those kids have another level of energy!

If you could pick three plants to make a super playful garden, what would you choose and why?
FLOWERS – Flowers are so great in any garden, as long as you’ve made an agreement with yourself that they’re there to be enjoyed and are going to get picked! Our flowers get used in magic potions, bouquets, beds for fairies, little collages, you name it.

VEGETABLES – Growing vegetables is such a fun and exciting thing to do, plus you get food. This year we grew cucamelons (Mexican cucumbers) – they’ve been lots of fun for everyone. We’ve gotten so many from one plant that we’ve taken them everywhere. It’s been fun watching people of all ages sussing them out, their eyes darting about as they munch on them, the dramatic ones spitting them out.

A CLIMBING TREE – What’s better as a child than a tree you can climb up and sit in the branches? That’s as good as it gets, if you ask me!

Can you share a little project for parents and kids to play together?
Building a sensory garden together. It doesn’t have to be massive, just a special part of the garden where the kids can play and loose themselves in imagination. I’ve built a number of these and they’re so much fun. There needs to be places for the children to dig, play with water, pick plants, walk over, jump over, places to sit.

I often find children just like it when the parents are around them too – if you build a garden or space with a cheeky little sitting spot in it, you can get away with playing but with mostly sitting. A win win situation!

Do you think there is a relationship between freedom and play outdoors? When doing incursions how do you balance protecting kids with play and experimentation?
When working in an educational environment our major focus is for the children to be safe and adhering to the rules and regulations of each individual centre. That said, I always encourage all children to give it a go. This can mean helping and encouraging a child who normally doesn’t get dirty at home to hold a worm, or a child who is very concerned about getting dirty hands to have a dig. I encourage them to give everything a try – free from worry – and tell them it will all wash off with soap and water!

There’s been a clear and exciting shift in the last couple of years towards early learning environments re-embracing the idea of play. At one point the safety rules and regulations meant outdoor spaces were fake turf and that’s about it!

Kids need to have spaces to explore, they need nature, they need challenges. I am especially loving how many early learning environments are installing veggie gardens, water gardens and mud kitchens! This is old school play at its best.

What have your kids taught you about play?
The truth is, sometimes you have to push yourself to play with your own kids. I find some imaginative play grueling! ‘Mum you’re a dragon, Mum can you be a wizard’… I have a five minute tolerance for this kind of play. But I guess when you’re hanging out with kids whatever you are doing with them, as long as you’re engaged is play, that’s just how they roll.

I really enjoy putting on music and dancing around, baking (only recently), going on nature walks and hanging outside with my own kids. Today my daughter and I walked along the beach and we collected shells and “clams” and I had the best time because I decided to really join her on the walk. Stopping, looking, chatting, I wondered if it was play. I think it was – we were together, free, relaxed, happy and dreaming up dreams.

What about technology? Has it changed the way we play?
The biggest thing I’ve noticed in the 20 years I’ve been working with children is the way play has changed in conjunction with our increasing use of technology. Parents seem less confident or inclined to let their children go off and play. I don’t poo poo technology at all, my kids watch TV nearly every night at 5pm sharp just so we can get stuff done.

It is in play that children find their confidence, their imagination and their passions.

Since becoming a parent I have come to understand the worry/fear that comes with giving your child the space needed to give something a go. This space is very important. The simplest decision I have made is to never put my child in clothes that require me to say “don’t get this dirty”. If I see dirt, a rip, a bruise or blood I say “oh well, that means you were having fun and giving something a go.” I also don’t move if my babe falls over (unless I think I need to take them to the hospital!) – their fall is usually followed by me shouting something like “Ah, are ya alright?”

Playing teaches us so many lessons – how to have fun, how to lose, and how to fall and get back up again.

Check out The Sage Garden’s WEBSITE / FACEBOOK / INSTAGRAM