A decade after she began diving into the natural history of Marin, Julie Hanft leads a unique summer camp where kids learn, explore and interact with every ecosystem around us.
“Immersive” is an adjective you’ll find in many, if not most, descriptions of  summer camps for kids in Marin and throughout the Bay Area.

But few can promise the kind of immersion that Marin GreenPlay Camp delivers. That is, a field trip-based, complete immersion in the natural environment of Marin and the North Bay. Marin Green Play Camp founder Julie Hanft puts it succinctly: “The green meadows, rocky shorelines, pristine beaches, lovely lagoons, shady creeks, sandy deserts and mountain trails of California are our playground.”

Hanft knows how to achieve this level of immersion, because she did it for herself when she relocated from Miami to Mill Valley with her family a decade ago. A graduate of Barnard College and the University of Miami Law School, Hanft has worked as a federal law clerk and commercial litigator in her career. Before their move, she’d made great strides in connecting her then-four-year-old son with nature, and continuing those efforts – and expanding upon them – was a huge priority for her when they arrived in Mill Valley in 2006.

She had much more than weekend hikes on Mount Tam in mind, however.

Hanft found out about and enrolled in College of Marin’s Natural History program, learning every aspect of the natural history of the Bay Area, in class and on field trips, from “experts who have been here for years and know this place like the back of their hand,” says Hanft, who now has certificates in Natural History and in Environmental Science from the College of Marin and a certificate in Sustainable Practices from Dominican University and has graduated from the Environmental Forum of Marin.

One of Hanft’s biggest takeaways from her academic pursuits in Marin has been the ability see the larger environmental thread here. The heavy emphasis on specialization within scientific research over the past half century has made it less popular to be a generalist, she says.

“Fewer people knowing enough about a lot of things has been to the detriment to science, because what ends up lost is the whole system view of the ecosystems,” she says. “When you silo yourself, you do so to the detriment of your view of the whole ecosystem.”

In the summer of 2008, Hanft took a job at Tree Frog Treks, an acclaimed nature camp based in San Francisco. That experience showed Hanft how something similar that was specific to Marin could be sustainable and valuable for kids. She also drew on stories about Elizabeth Terwilliger, Mill Valley’s beloved, straw hat-wearing naturalist and environmental educator who was known as “Mrs. T” and was a local institution until she passed away in 2006.

“We’ve really tried to carry on some of the things she would say and do,” Hanft says. “’We should leave the places that we visit better than we found them’ was one of them. That’s a hallmark of our camps.”

Hanft puts that mantra into action, incorporating an age-appropriate service project into every week of Marin GreenPlay Camp, which is divided into two age groups: kindergarten through second grade and third grade through sixth grade. For instance, if the camp visits Bayfront Park, she’ll partner up with the City of Mill Valley to have kids do some weeding in the area, or work with Marin County Parks on a service project in conjunction with a rock climbing outing (the only week-long rock climbing camp in Marin, for grades 3-12) at Ring Mountain. In 2016, Marin GreenPlay participants helped the Mill Valley Library maintain its SmartGarden, a demonstration garden that teaches the importance of native plants and the necessity of water management.

At each destination, Hanft connects campers with people who act as the stewards of the places they visit – “local people who live here who are deeply involved,” she says.

The aforementioned activities will sound familiar to Hanft’s former students at Greenwood School, where she was the Nature/Environmental Studies (NEST) teacher for several years. During that stint, Hanft launched the school’s “Minutes for Mill Valley” fundraiser, in which Greenwood parents and families would sponsor students 15 cents a minute on a variety of projects to raise money to bring the Spirit of Uganda music dance troupe back to Mill Valley as part of its biannual fundraising tour.

The program had students turning the marsh on the Goodman Building Supply property near Hwy. 101 into a real-life environmental laboratory, and removing invasive blackberry plants on Horse Hill and weeding common areas of the Community Garden with so much success that it received a Proclamation from the Mill Valley City Council.

Each week of Marin GreenPlay Camp centers on an ecosystem, from ocean and bayfront to forests and creeks. Campers learn about the plants and animals that live within that ecosystem. “It goes from little kids looking at Old Mill Park the way they would for their age to older kids doing research projects on the creeks,” Hanft says. “There’s this whole continuum of learning and activity for each age group, from purely observational to observing and drawing conclusions.”

Given how much Hanft has immersed herself into Mill Valley and its environment, it’s no surprise that she keeps up on current events, and passes on that knowledge in an age-appropriate way to her campers. For instance, with the City’s Steps, Lanes and Paths getting plenty of headlines over the past year, Hanft plans to educate kids about “the wonders of the Steps, Lanes and Paths so that they’ll want to use them and cherish them when they get older.”

The 411: Marin GreenPlay Camp runs from June 12 through August 25. In May, Hanft offers a Youth Leaders program. MORE INFO & SIGN UP.

Want to know what’s happening around town? Click here to subscribe to the Enjoy Mill Valley Blog by Email!