La Grotta dei Piccoli – Cinema Workshops in Schools

“La Grotta dei Piccoli – Cinema Workshops in Schools” is an educational project organized by La Guarimba that took place between January and February 2023 in Calabrian schools.

The initiative was funded by the call for proposals “Cinema and Images for Schools – Projects of Territorial Relevance”, promoted by the Italian Ministries of Education and Culture to foster the capacity for critical reading of film language and the strengthening of skills in audiovisual languages in Italian schools.

Our goal, stated in the announcement, was “education, reflection and training in the language of film among students aged 10 to 15”. With the guidance of a tutor and a handbook created specifically for the purpose, the students involved made their own animated shorts, starting from the creation of the story to the screening on the last day.

What happened during the five weeks of work with the students went beyond all expectations and had a profound impact on our vision of the context in which we work, allowing us to come into contact with realities rich in difficulties and potential and to rediscover the meaning of what we have always tried to do: to bring cinema back to the people and the people to the cinema.


The workshops proposal, which was forwarded to the call committee in May 2022, was built with the idea of traveling to all five provinces of Calabria, creating a network of educational institutions in the area. We tried to involve mainly schools in peripheral areas, where cultural proposals for young people are absent or very scarce.

During the school search phase, we encountered the first major obstacle of the whole process: the mistrust of school staff and the difficulty in making initial contact with those involved in extra-curricular projects, due to internal organizational problems. During two full months, we made phone calls, sent e-mails, PECs and messages to 92 institutions, sending the project proposals and all the required information, explaining well that the school would not have to bear any costs. When the call for proposals expired, we managed to enter into agreements with only 7 of them, yet still managed to involve municipalities from all five provinces of our region.

We asked each school to select a group of up to 30 students to participate in the five-day workshops.

The most represented age group was 11 to 13, but we also involved a high school to see if the project could be adapted to older students.

We collaborated with very different schools in terms of size and context (from the largest city in Calabria, Reggio, to very small towns, both inland and coastal), making the analysis carried out more interesting.

The schools involved were: Istituto Comprensivo Mendicino (Mendicino – Province of Cosenza), Istituto Comprensivo Campora-Aiello (Campora S. Giovanni, Aiello Calabro, Cleto, Fiumefreddo – Province of Cosenza), Istituto Comprensivo Badolato (in Badolato and S. Caterina sullo Ionio – Province of Catanzaro), Convitto Nazionale di Stato “T. Campanella” (Reggio di Calabria – province of Reggio Calabria), Istituto Comprensivo Karol Wojtyla (Isola di Capo Rizzuto – Province of Crotone), Liceo Scientifico G. Berto (Vibo Valentia – Province of Vibo Valentia).


We entrusted the creation of the educational course to a team of professionals who have been collaborating with our association for several years and curate, within La Guarimba International Film Festival, activities for children and young people.

Valeria Weerasinghe, an Italian-Srilankan illustrator and animator, led the workshops, taking care of the educational content and the training of the participants.

Gabriele Tangerini, an educator based in Rome, assumed the role of scientific manager of the project, taking care of its educational aspects and monitoring.

At the educational level, we applied a method inspired by the principles of Montessori Education, Cooperative Learning and Learning By Doing. Through the workshops, we used the languages of animation film and illustration in a dual dimension: as a tool for education and reflection and as a possibility for training and content production.

We chose to conduct the classes through a non-formal approach, breaking down the distances between teachers and students, making them work together and not individually, valuing interaction, solidarity and the equal division of tasks at the basis of their growth as students, artists and members of a community. We chose to randomly create the groups of 4-5 students who would work together, so that they would get used to working even with people they do not know and overcome conflicts.

The scientific head of the project Gabriele Tangerini structured a monitoring system that included an observation of the target context and an analysis of the impact of the project in the participants directly involved and in the whole school community. Monitoring was carried out through observation grids, questionnaires, qualitative interviews and focus groups.

Internal observation grids monitored participants’ level of familiarity with the topics covered, their level of involvement during the various activities, skill development, and type of interaction in teamwork.

Interviews were conducted at the beginning of the workshops with the school’s project manager, and aimed to understand the context of the workshops, the type of students involved, the level of children’s participation in cultural activities and any problems and obstacles we might have encountered. Our analysis also focused on the presence of opportunities and spaces dedicated to young people for their cultural growth: community centers such as cinemas, parks, libraries, associations, cultural spaces and theaters. In addition to this, the provision of extra-curricular initiatives by schools, beyond traditional teaching, and spaces dedicated to creativity within institutions.

Other interviews were conducted with ordinary teachers from the institutes, again with the aim of understanding the social context and educational system in which Calabrian young people live. This step was useful for us to understand how to better incorporate our educational journey and the impact it had on students.

At the end of the project, we distributed questionnaires for the participants to fill out anonymously, so that they could indicate to us, without being influenced, their level of enjoyment of the activities and aspects for improvement. Finally, we held a focus group with the participants, having all the students sit in a circle to discuss the experience together, how we felt during the activities and try to address the critical issues found along the way.


As part of the project preparation, we took on the task of analyzing and trying to understand the social context and educational system in which Calabrian youths live.

This analysis was carried out starting from the interviews conducted at the beginning of each workshop with school staff and the observation of the dynamics created within the working groups.

We found a good level of school participation in ministerial projects (so-called “PON projects”) and in initiatives organized by associations, such as computer workshops, theater and writing competitions. Respondents said on average that their students have good opportunities to unleash their creativity and have educational experiences other than traditional teaching hours. Two institutions, in particular, were very responsive in this regard, with teachers actively experimenting with nonformal teaching methods and using digital tools to create new opportunities for students, including participating in calls for proposals and proposing extracurricular projects and activities.

However, all of the teachers interviewed said they felt the presence and quality of spaces for creativity was insufficient: in some schools they are present – though not in adequate numbers – in others totally absent.

But the most worrying data come from the extracurricular context: the interviews reveal the absence of spaces and initiatives dedicated to young people, and the lack of opportunities to open up to the world and network, especially in peripheral areas and smaller towns.

Many teachers interviewed mentioned a cultural center accessible to young people as a lacking local need . “The problem for these kids, is that when they go outside, the stimulus is only familiar, and it’s paid for. The problem is that those who can, do, and those who can’t, don’t. Then here are the divisions. […] All it would take is a hall, a cultural center, which is not there.” (comment from one interviewed teacher).

Dialogue with teaching staff also helped us understand the social context in which we worked. Some students in multiple schools had incarcerated parents, others came from farming families that involved them to work very early, taking time away from school. In smaller towns, teachers also helped us understand how geographic isolation and the limited supply of spaces and activities for kids made our workshops an exception, explaining the overexcitement and chaos of some moments.

One problem encountered in almost all schools was the difficulty for students to work as a team and collaborate. We had to manage conflicts among participants and make them understand the importance of listening to each other and working together to achieve common goals.

On the teachers’ side, however, we noticed in some cases an initial distrust of us. We had to demonstrate our skills to overcome the wariness that made our work more difficult, starting with communicating with staff for simple matters such as making photocopies, opening classrooms or having access to Wi-Fi.

The environments where we carried out the workshops differed from school to school: we worked both in cozy, bright spaces with mobile desks and working interactive whiteboards and in smaller classrooms that were not ideal for this kind of work.

However, we adapted activities to the spaces we had available.

In one particular case, we encountered serious disorganization on the part of a school that, despite contact and coordination efforts on our part, did not guarantee us the minimum conditions for holding the workshops we had agreed upon, causing them to be cancelled. During the project we encountered logistical obstacles that posed an additional challenge to overcome. Every morning we left Amantea to drive to the schools where we were working, and the state of the infrastructure connecting the towns in the region made it very difficult for us to travel. We also had to plan our trips by considering the closures of sections of roads due to landslides and ongoing construction, greatly lengthening our travel time.


The workshops were structured over five days, with two hours of activities each day, and were constructed in such a way as to adapt a complex process such as creating an animated film to a group of teenagers, simplifying the steps without distorting its essence. Our goal was to educate the participants in the language of animation, particularly the stop-motion technique, which involves taking a series of photographs that, played back in succession, create the illusion of movement. We approached this technique in a way that instructed and entertained at the same time, making it stimulating and interesting.

Each participant was given an illustrated manual, created by tutor Valeria Weerasinghe, in which all the topics of the workshops were explained in a clear and illustrative manner, suitable for middle school students’ understanding. Within the manual, space was dedicated for writing and drawing the stories, characters and storyboard.

We devoted each day to a different module, in which we addressed one phase of filmmaking each time: story writing, character design, animation, editing and sound, and the final screening.

Day One: The Story

We started the first meeting with an introduction of our organization and teachers, introducing the activities. After asking all participants to introduce themselves, we handed them the project manuals.

The project tutor, Valeria Weerasinghe, opened the work with a frontal lesson on the language of animation, also to understand the participants’ familiarity with the genre, showing examples of different styles and starting to engage the kids with questions.

We then randomly formed working groups of 4 or 5 people, who sat in a circle to work together on devising the two basic elements of a story: a character and a location.

After collecting the cards where the characters and places had been written, we had them randomly draw them from each group, so as to force them to work on characters and stories that were not decided by them and that apparently had no connection.

We gave instructions on how to structure a story in three acts and pushed the students to use their imaginations to create the plot of their film, with one condition: include an Easter egg of a monkey, the symbol of La Guarimba.

The first day ended with directions for creating a storyboard, where the groups began to develop their stories visually.

The stories created surprised us with their originality and some recurring themes. First, that of prison, popularized by the TV series that many kids of that generation watch, but also by their family stories. Fantasy genres, with wizards and elves as protagonists, science fiction and action were also popular. Several characters were anthropomorphic animals, moving among spaceships, enchanted forests and underwater prisons.

We found ourselves in the midst of a creative volcano generated by minds full of enthusiasm and imagination, ready to shape ideas.

Day Two: the Characters and Backgrounds

The second day was dedicated to creating the characters and backgrounds. We entrusted the various groups with colored plasticine bricks and various cards, and guided them to make the elements that they would then animate the next day.

The challenge of this type of work was to be able to concretize the participants’ ideas, while also making the characters usable in the animation process. We showed the kids how to create stable characters, of the ideal size, while leaving them free to experiment, to make mistakes and to unleash their creativity.

Some groups chose to focus more on the details of plasticine characters, while others divided the work and made beautiful cardboard backgrounds. We encouraged collaboration, preventing the most enthusiastic from monopolizing the work, making it a confrontational and listening activity.

Day three: Animation

On the third day, we set up a photography station in the workrooms for each group, using tablets, tripods and gray cardboards as backgrounds.

We explained the stop-motion animation technique to the students through the Stop Motion Studio app, which has several functions to help the process.

We decided to use a device the kids are most familiar with and a free app, to push them to create their own films even after the workshops were over.

After explaining the process, the groups were divided into rotating roles to allow everyone to experiment with various tasks: a director (the one who decides the movements), an operator (the one who sets up the tablet and takes the pictures) two animators (those who move the characters) and a supervisor.

Day four: Editing and Sound

The fourth day was devoted to editing the animated clips made the day before and recording the sounds.

After explaining to the groups the principles of video editing using the Adobe Premiere program, we worked group by group to record live sounds and voices from the films. It was a very challenging creative process for the kids, who had to use their imaginations to simulate the sounds and noises of their shorts, taking advantage of the objects they owned. We chose not to use sampled sounds, but have them record everything.

The dubbing phase gave rise to different choices: some narrated the film with voiceovers, some gave character voices, and some dared more experimental solutions to simulate background sounds. It was a way to push the children to think outside the box and find innovative solutions to their obstacles.

Day five: Evaluation and Final Screening

The final day served to make sense of the path built over the four meetings and show the results of teamwork and personal commitment.

We started by having the participants fill out anonymous questionnaires to collect data and information on their involvement and their level of enjoyment of the activities.

We then screened all the films made by them, presented by each group: it was very exciting to confront their reactions and enthusiasm to see the results of their hard work for the first time.

Participants then awarded the films, choosing the best works according to six categories: story, animation, best performance, best sound, editing, and easter egg. The award ceremonies were a way to push the kids to see their films critically and recognize the differences in the works: we did not award prizes to the winning group, but gave a T-shirt and some gadgets from the project to all participants.

Finally, we held the focus group, discussing together what we had done during the workshop days.


We traveled 3,038 km in 6 weeks to bring La Grotta dei Piccoli to 7 schools in the 5 provinces of Calabria. A total of 147 students were directly involved in a total of 60 hours of workshops. 28 short animated films (about 20 minutes in total) were made.

These numbers can tell only partially about what this project managed to bring to the schools and the lives of the students who participated. The questionnaires and focus groups conducted with participants at the end of each project helped us to give a dimension to the impact of the work done.

The workshops were largely appreciated by the participants, who also understood their usefulness and potential, as demonstrated by the charts:

The monitoring of participant engagement (defined as the level of attention students devote to the assigned task during the workshop, rather than other distractions) showed daily averages above 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5) in all institutions, with the highest scores recorded on the second and third days, those dedicated to character creation and animation.

These two activities were also found to be the most liked, as evidenced by the referenced graph. In the open-ended responses, participants mentioned several times how much they liked the opportunity to let out creativity, have fun and learn new things at the same time. Many (53 percent) said they appreciated being able to learn how to make a film, which was unexpected for them at the beginning of the workshops.

Among the open-ended responses, we found some very beautiful and interesting statements, such as:


“I learned how to make a short film, I enjoyed
the thought of a piece of paper written in pencil
evolving into a small film.”

“I learned to see the cartoon world
with different eyes by thinking and immersing
myself in their construction.”

“I learned to create a movie like the ones
I used to watch as a child, and I enjoyed it
because I thought I wasn’t good at creating these things.”


Another aspect, perhaps even more important to us, was how the kids learned to work together and communicate to overcome obstacles and achieve common goals. Our analysis had shown us this great difficulty in many institutions, and the choice to have them work in randomly composed groups paid off: in fact, 30 percent of respondents said they learned to collaborate and appreciated this discovery. Some very significant responses to the question “what did you learn again that you enjoyed the most?”


“I learned teamwork, it’s easy to say.
but doing it is more difficult often there are quarrels.
But we learned how to overcome them.”

“That to make a good
film you have to collaborate together”

“To collaborate with new classmates and with older kids.
We also learned how to relate to each other
and respect each other, which is crucial nowadays.”

“About being a team player and that there are
much harder things to do with patience
and calm and get there and that others have a lot of different ideas.”

“Everything about this field is about
meeting new people and learning new things
because it has been so much nicer to do it together
with new people and find out more about them.”

“I learned how to work together with others,
even though it was difficult initially
because some people didn’t like me very much.”

At the beginning of this journey, we were aware of the educational potential of these workshops. Having worked in Calabria for ten years, we know that it is difficult for many young people to access training courses of this kind, and that the language of film and animation are not topics covered in traditional educational paths.

Therefore, we created an educational path with middle school students to give them the tools they need to look at an animated film with new eyes and a new awareness, making them understand the importance of the work behind it and the dignity of the professions in the film world.

Yet, the most important aspect for us that emerged from the study we conducted during the project was the need of the youth to socialize, to be together and share moments of meeting and working as a team. School alone cannot meet this need, and the urban and social contexts in which they live lack spaces and opportunities for them to make friends, have healthy fun, and allow them to meet and get to know each other.

This journey has made us realize how important it is to have a modern House of Culture that listens to the needs of young people, especially their need to get together and engage with each other, starting with small towns in suburban areas. This realization motivates us to continue to pursue a project that works, is replicable, and is useful to students, teachers, and the community.