Stretch Educators

Michelle Lawton

Michelle Lawton founded Stretch the Imagination in 2002 with the intention of creating a program where children are free to explore and are given the time to delve deeply into their experiences. Stretch originally started as a program for art, yoga and music. Over the past 14 years, it has developed into a respected preschool program grounded in nurturing children’s development through creativity, inquiry and connecting to the natural world. Michelle is also invested in supporting professional development and encouraging the growth of educators who come to work at Stretch. She believes strongly in the importance of continuing education and recently finished studying with Dan Siegel at the Mindsight Institute in Los Angeles. She continued her own education in 2014/2015 by studying with Jon Young and the educators of the 8 Shields Institute. She is inspired by their work in mentoring, education, and the facilitation of a deep nature connection. Michelle has a passion for connecting children to the natural world and in starting the Natural Classroom in 2010 was a pioneer in bringing children out of the classroom and into nature during their weekly school days. She takes inspiration from working with nature leaders both here and abroad and presents annually at the Children Learning with Nature Conference here in the Bay Area. As a mom and educator Michelle is dedicated to honoring a child’s right to creative exploration, play, and the magic of early childhood.

Stretch is a place of magic, compassion, and growth.
The school is truly comprised of a team of educators and parents
who work in partnership to support these amazing children. I’m
so proud of what our community has built together..

— Michelle Lawton, Founder & Co-Director at Stretch the Imagination

Melissa O’Mahony

Melissa O’Mahony is from San Francisco and spent her high school years in Mill Valley. She has her B.A. in Young Child Development and M.A. and Credential in Early Childhood Special Education, both from San Francisco State University. She is now a professor at SF State as she teaches undergraduates a families course in the Special Education department. Her interest in children has been a part of her life since adolescence and she has been working with young children for 15 years in various school and home settings. She spent her first four years at Stretch as a classroom teacher and became our Assistant Director in 2017. In her free time, she enjoys exploring nature with her 2 ½ year old and husband, riding her bike through the streets of San Francisco, having dance parties with her family, and laughing and cooking with friends.

Paola Trigari

Paola​ ​Trigari​ is an educational consultant on the Constructivism, Social-Constructivism, Project-oriented and Reggio Emilia-inspired educational philosophies. Paola holds seminars and consulting appointments throughout the U.S.and in Europe. She consults for preschools to primary schools, and collaborates with universities and pedagogical institutions. She is the co-director of a new post-graduate program in Early Childhood and Primary Education at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Paola worked as pedagogical director and program director of the Reggio inspired Inquiry based International Italian School in San Francisco (La Scuola of SF). Paola obtained her ECE qualifications in San Francisco. She also holds a BA from Bocconi University in Milan and an MSc in economics from UPF (Barcelona) with a final thesis on the Returns to Education. She has an International background: native of Italy, grew up in Turin (Italy), Paris (France) and Sâo Paulo (Brazil). Italian native speaker, Paola speaks English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Paola has a passion for the Stretch Community, its inquiry based approach, its deep connection with both the design thinking method and the natural component. Paola enjoys traveling, watching movies and hiking with her husband and their dog, Sherpa.

Each year, we welcome students into our gates to nurture their
creativity and support their growth and learning. We are committed
to instilling a passion for lifelong learning as our children discover
the wonder and magic that our world has to offer.

— Whitney Ellis, Co-Director at Stretch the Imagination


Anna is originally from Los Angeles, and moved to the Berkeley three years ago to pursue work with children. Anna taught at a play based preschool in North Point for one year before joining Stretch. In addition, she has been a dance and movement instructor for preschool aged children for many years. When Anna is not teaching she enjoys dancing, karaoke, crafting and petting dogs.


Anna joined the Stretch team in the Fall of 2014. Upon graduating from the University of San Francisco in 2007 with a dual degree in Fine Art and Psychology, she started nannying and fell in love with the early childhood field. Anna graduated with a Masters in ECE from San Francisco State University in 2016. She enjoys how children are natural and creative scientists allowing them to constantly learn through their experiences large and small. In her free time, Anna is an artist and loves working in a variety of mediums, primarily woodworking and photography. She especially enjoys traveling, visiting museums, and spending time outdoors to continually be inspired.


Ana joins Stretch after moving to SF with her husband who is in his medical residency here in the city. She comes with a degree in Psychology from UCSD and a number of years working in the school system in San Diego. Ana will be joining our team as our support teacher, a role that is essential to the community. In this role, Ana will come to meet all the children at Stretch and support our teaching staff and administration while learning more about our approach to early childhood. When not teaching Ana loves to dance and explore new adventures.

It is my mission as an educator to help students meet their
fullest potential by providing a safe environment that
supports risk-taking, invites a sharing of ideas, and
creates a passion for lifelong learning.

— Pine & Laurel Teacher at Stretch the Imagination


Dallas is excited to join the team at Stretch the Imagination. She has been teaching for three years in San Francisco, most recently at One Fifty Parker. Dallas grew up in Florida and North Carolina and has lived in San Francisco since 2011. She has a BS in Journalism from the University of North Carolina, and an MS in Instructional Technology from Indiana University. She completed her core ECE coursework and the additional Site Supervisor requirements from City College in San Francisco. Dallas spends her free time volunteering, taking pottery classes, and traveling with her family. She has two daughters attending the Chinese Immersion School at DeAvila, and often cycles with them around the city on her big green cargo bike.


Hannah joins Stretch after teaching for four years at the Serra School here in San Francisco and has worked for more than 9 years in the field of Early Childhood. She is excited to delve deeper into a project based program and is currently working on her Masters Degree at San Francisco State University. When she is not teaching Hannah loves to travel and practice yoga. Hannah will be teaching our Juniper class this year.


Jerika is originally from the Bay Area and is currently living in Pacifica. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a child and adolescent development degree and finished her master’s degree in May of 2014 in early childhood development. Jerika has worked at Stretch the Imagination since 2012 and has captured many amazing photos of our students throughout her years. We so value this as a part of our documentation process. In her spare time, Jerika loves photography and enjoys visiting all the great neighborhoods around the city.

Through my education at the University of Oklahoma,
I studied many constructivist and progressive teaching
approaches, including the Reggio Emilia approach, all of
which have shaped my teaching philosophy.

— Magnolia & Willow Teacher at Stretch the Imagination


Jess joins Stretch after completing her degree at San Francisco State University. She has most recently been working in their early childhood center and comes with a deep appreciation for nature and a love of art, music and dance. We are excited to welcome Jess into our community.


Jonathan earned an undergraduate degree in elementary and kindergarten education before teaching Pre-K in DC. Intrigued by Reggio Emilia, play-based learning environments, and social and emotional learning, he left public school to teach at a Reggio Emilia-inspired school in California in 2014. Jonathan is currently studying a graduate program in early childhood education with an emphasis on trauma. He moved to San Francisco in 2018, and is excited to join the Stretch community.

Growing up in the rural forests of Pennsylvania, Jonathan loved to play and explore outside, and he enjoys sharing his passion for nature. In his free time, Jonathan enjoys watching movies, hiking, eating, playing guitar, and attempting to surf at California’s incredible beaches.


Julia is a San Francisco native and is joining Stretch for the fall as she fills in for Tracy who is on maternity leave. Julia has been in the Early Childhood field for more than twenty years. She was most recently the director of Redeemer preschool in San Rafael. She worked for 13 years in the preschool program at Marin Primary and Middle School which is a Reggio Inspired and project based curriculum model. Julia is a good friend and wonderful collaborator and we are very excited to have her join our team. When not teaching, Julia enjoys time with her husband and family in San Francisco.

Through my experiences, I have come to see the classroom
as a place not only for children to take ownership of their
learning but as a place to foster a desire to be lifelong
learners and active community members.

— Maple Teacher at Stretch the Imagination


Kaitlyn is originally from the Midwest and has lived in California for a little over three years. She has always had a passion for working with children and graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in family resources with a main focus on child development. She worked at a preschool after graduating and decided that teaching was a perfect fit for her. Children bring unmeasurable joy and happiness to her life and she has a total of 12 years experience working with children aged 2 years-1st grade. Kaitlyn recently moved from Santa Barbara, CA where she worked in an outdoor preschool. It was here that her love for nature was reignited. When she’s not teaching, she can be found trying new restaurants, exploring the city, spending time outdoors and hanging out with her husband and dog, lily.


Kelsey moved out to San Francisco a number of years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and spent most of her childhood in the Midwest, where she graduated with a degree from Southern Illinois University in Sociology. After spending many years as a nanny, she learned quickly that working with children was always her passion and true calling. Kelsey observed Stretch in the fall of 2017 and from the moment she stepped foot in the doors, she knew this was where she needed to be. Kelsey started at Stretch in the spring 2018, getting a chance to work with all of the classes. She is thrilled to continue her education journey at Stretch! She truly enjoys how magical these early years are and continues to be dedicated in learning all aspects related to early childhood development. In her free time, Kelsey loves to go camping, hiking, taking walks around different neighborhoods in the city, and spending time with friends and family. Her favorite moments are when she is surrounded by people she loves, enjoying the simple things in life!


Mary was born and raised in Costa Mesa, California and has lived in San Francisco for many years now. She received her Child Development Degree at San Francisco State University with a concentration in young children and families. During her last year at State, Mary went abroad and took pedagogy courses in Sweden. Mary joined our Stretch team in 2011 and has continued to grow and expand her passions for teaching with young children. She has shown a strong passion and dedication toward weaving in graphical representation and various forms of art into her classes. In her spare time, Mary loves to travel with her husband, take yoga classes, and running at Panhandle Park. She enjoys a day at the park with a picnic basket and friends!

The Natural Classroom inspires so much growth, creativity,
risk taking, problem solving and deep social connection.
The benefits are powerful. We believe strongly at Stretch that it
is every child’s right to connect with the natural world.

— Michelle Lawton, Founder at Stretch the Imagination


Riley Wise is a native New Yorker who has been working in early childhood for 12 years. She worked in NYC with infants at a daycare called Basic Trust, at a bilingual preschool in Potrero Hill, and at the Mills College Children’s School in Oakland. After earning her MA in Early Childhood Education at Mills, Riley went on to work at The Nueva School in Hillsborough, and at The Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek, where she served as the atelierista for Pre-k. Riley is a passionate advocate for young children, families, and teachers, and recently became a mother to a baby girl named Frances Fog. When she’s not teaching, Riley loves to cook, read, sew, and talk to strangers.


Sarah is a native to the bay area and grew up in Santa Cruz California. Sarah joined the Stretch team in 2013 and has continued to learn and grow as an educator here at Stretch for many years. When not playing here at Stretch Sarah enjoys her mindful practice of meditation. She also loves to cook, eat good food, and can often be found creating art or visiting the work of other artists.


Originally from Southern California, Scarlett moved to San Francisco and joined our Stretch team in 2015. She is a nurturing and dedicated teacher who has spent her years working with all preschool ages. Scarlett has traveled with her classes watching them grow from our youngest students into our graduates on their way to kindergartens throughout the Bay Area.


Tim moved to the Bay Area from Wisconsin where he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor’s in Education – a dual program focusing on Early Childhood Regular Education and Early Childhood Special Education. With over 15 years of experience in early childhood, and having spent much of his professional career in inquiry and research based environments, he is eager to work with young children and their families, learn from fellow staff members, and become involved in the surrounding community. As an educator, it is his goal to enhance students’ learning and development, help them to become the best individuals they can be, and cultivate a positive, engaged community. And in 2016, he gained his Master’s in Education from San Francisco State University, where his thesis was “Empowering Children: Creating Supportive Early Childhood Environments that Promote Positive Self Identities.”

Tim has a love for adventure and nature, two themes that often work their way into his curriculum. He loves spending time outside, whether it be at home with his husband or at school with his class. Constantly pushing himself to experience new things and explore his feelings about those experiences, he believes that this is the way all people grow – children and adults alike.


Tina joins Stretch after graduating from San Francisco State University with an undergrad in Early Childhood. She is a Bay Area native having grown up in San Jose, California. Tina is a valuable resource to the school as she will support many different classrooms and teams. When not working at Stretch Tina loves to spend time with friends and family and travel the world.


Tracy is a veteran teacher at Stretch and a Bay Area native. She originally came to our program from teaching in the Oakland Unified School district. Tracy received her Master’s in Early Childhood from Mill’s College. Tracy has a deep connection and appreciation for the natural world and is a leader out in our Natural Classroom program. Tracy will be returning to Stretch in January, 2020 after taking some maternity leave time to be with her new son. When not teaching, Tracy loves spending time with her husband, son, and wonderful pets here in the Bay Area.


Vanessa joined the Stretch team in 2016 and has traveled with her students as they grow and develop here at Stretch. She has been teaching in this field for over 19 years throughout Napa, Berkeley and of course, San Francisco. Vanessa is originally from Napa and graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Multicultural Studies and with an emphasis on multicultural education. She moved to San Francisco 9 years ago with her husband and their spaniel mix Ollie. Some of her passions include taking Ollie out for hikes in the Presidio, spending time in Napa with family and visiting new restaurants in the city as an amateur foodie.

— Parent