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. 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. For the last 4 years, she has been in the classroom as a teacher and is excited to take on the role of assistant director this year. When she is not on the floor with the kids or working with parents, she is exploring nature with her 1 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 and family.

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


Adam moved to the Bay area from southern Oregon. He has a passion for music, nature and working with children. He started his journey of teaching out in the wilderness as a youth guide and mentor in the North Bay. He spent two years as a student in a relational education and nature connection program known as Weaving Earth. He then took his nature connection skills into the classroom here at Stretch. Adam starts his second year teaching at Stretch this fall, deepening his journey in the world of connection, empathy and early childhood. When he’s not teaching, Adam continues his career as a professional musician, stage name Adam Knight, often playing at locations around the city. He is a soul, R&B, & Pop singer. He continues to inspire both the educators and children alike with his infusion of music throughout our classrooms and hallways.


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.


Originally from Southern California, Astrid moved to San Francisco in 2013 to pursue her Masters in Early Childhood Education at San Francisco State University. While studying, she had the unique opportunity to help run an in home preschool and create an age appropriate curriculum that served a mixed aged classroom. Her passion for nature education, building school community, and nurturing empathy in children helps her create a meaningful and supportive learning environment. Astrid enjoys being active outdoors, dancing, traveling, sushi, and exploring what this incredible city has to offer.

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


Blanche Lonsbury started her career in a Special Day classroom as an assistant to children with autism. She found her passion in the many different ways people learn and communicate. She received her degree in Early Childhood Education from San Francisco State. She continues to be inspired by the many ways children approach learning and the many ways children express themselves. Blanche has a deep connection to nature, one she hopes to share with the children she works with. She believes in a future where education prepares children to solve problems creatively, collaboratively and with deep empathy for the people we live with and the land we live on. In her free time, Blanche likes to hike, of water sports, and listen to music.


Ilia was born and raised in Yauco, Puerto Rico and has lived in San Francisco for the last nine years. The Caribbean and the Bay Area have allowed her to create a connection with art, music, culture and nature and she deeply loves both of these places that she considers home. After graduating with a BA in Biology from the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico she worked with children in various summer camps, after school programs and at the Dr. Juan A. Rivera Zoo in Mayagüez, PR. Upon her move to California she completed various credits in Early Childhood Education and has been working as a preschool teacher for over six years. Through that time she has worked with numerous Spanish-English bilingual Preschool programs. Ilia is also a percussionist, singer and dancer for the Afro Puerto Rican music ensemble Taller Bombalele and an active member of the art, music and cultural community of the Mission District in San Francisco. Starting her second year here at Stretch, Ilia brings her background and passion for science, music and bilingual education into the classroom each day creating an environment that encourages children to be creative, to appreciate language and to connect with nature.


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. She has worked with children for over seven years and will be going into her third school year here at Stretch as a teacher. Jerika has captured many amazing photos of our students throughout her years at Stretch and we so value this as a part of our documentation. 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


Jessica comes to Stretch having most recently worked at the Glide childcare center. Before moving to SF Jessica worked in a Montessori school in the North West where she spent many years nurturing and guiding the youngest students. Jessica started at Stretch in our summer camps this year and will teach our youngest students in the school year.


Mary was born and raised in Costa Mesa, California and has lived in San Francisco for five 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 is going into her seventh year of teaching at Stretch 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, take yoga classes, and run at Panhandle Park. She enjoys a day at the park with a picnic basket and friends!


Sarah is a native to the bay area and grew up in Santa Cruz California. Sarah starts her fifth year working at Stretch. She will be returning to our morning classes this year after looping with her class for 2 years and seeing her Oaks graduate this past June. 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.

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


Originally from Southern California, Scarlett moved to San Francisco and started working at Stretch 3 years ago. She is a nurturing and dedicated teacher who has spent her years working with all preschool ages. She most recently taught our pre-K Redwood class that graduated in the spring of 2017. After seeing her students move on she is now returning to the morning where she will join our four year old students.


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.


Tracy, a born and raised Oaklander, is joining us for her fourth year. After teaching in the Oakland Public Schools as a first grade teacher, she found a home in Stretch and the project based work we do. While earning her Early Childhood Masters and multiple subject teaching Credential from Mills College she was inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach and has since had the opportunity to travel to the region and learn there with other Stretch educators. She is passionate about following the interests of children while weaving in her own strong interests of the natural world. Tracy was quoted by saying, “through these 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 confidence, a desire to be lifelong learners and active community members.”

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


Vanessa is a native to the Bay Area having grown up in Napa. She has been teaching in this field for over 10 years and brings a depth of knowledge and understanding to our classrooms. Vanessa is entering her 2nd year at Stretch and will be traveling with her Juniper class as they move on to become Laurels. When not at Stretch she can be found spending time with her husband, dog, and her family who are nearby.

— Parent