The Magic of Cartoon Companions: Building Strong Connections Beyond Words

Learning Lessons from a PV project involving children with disabilities in Iran

Have you ever imagined stepping into a world where anything is possible? Where the boundaries between reality and imagination blur, revealing the true power of human connection? 

Hold on for a moment! We’re going to tell you what happened and introduce ourselves. But remember, this isn’t a made-up story. This is where imaginary cartoon characters became a crucial part of a Participatory Video project.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have a lot to share about this specific project- a whole world of stories and details on Participatory Video and working with children with disabilities. This story is just a small part, which means it’s not a PV recipe but rather a memorable discovery for us. 

The Story Begins

Close your eyes and picture this: a group of children, each unique in their own way, ready to take part in a Participatory Video project. Our challenge? To create a shared world that goes beyond words. These seven amazing children, living in a welfare center in Tehran, Iran, face various mental or physical challenges, making our project more complex.

For a year and a half, we dedicated ourselves to visiting the welfare center weekly for a 4-hour workshop session, creating an environment where the children could lead the filmmaking process. The result? A remarkable 25-minute film, named “Playing in the Garden”.

We, a team of four facilitators from Iran, run an institute called “Ensanshahr“, which means Human City, and we focus on participatory approaches. Although we’ve worked on various projects with different participatory tools before, the idea of Participatory Video was new to us. In the summer of 2021, we discovered InsightShare’s Participatory Video training workshop. These sessions, along with our readings on Participatory Video, prepared us for this project.

In this project’s early days, we were frequently frustrated as facilitators. We even wondered if we should exclude some children, fearing our inexperience might unintentionally cause harm. We were unsure how to engage with a teenager who had just found their voice or a child with significant concentration issues. We were so stressed out and made many efforts to find a way to communicate with these children. One day, as we were talking to a center official, we were about to tell her we didn’t really know what to do with some of them. And she advised us to give them a second chance and be patient. Thank god she did that! 

An Unconventional Guide

One day, as one of our workshops was ending, the children asked for something simple – they wanted to watch one of their favorite cartoons. Surprisingly, no one said a word. Everyone watched the screen, captivated by their beloved cartoon.

This was the start of something special: the birth of an imaginary friend we came to know as “Horned Snake.” Our commitment to simplifying things for the children took a unique turn. We were about to visually represent the stages of Participatory Video on a large sheet of white paper. In our search, we found a cartoon snake in a spiral shape on Google Images, which we thought could symbolize the eight stages of Participatory Video creation. But this snake didn’t stay on the paper. It came to life, grew a tongue, and turned into a mask one of our facilitators wore. This was the beginning of our very first imaginary character.

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When Fictional Characters Save the Day

“Horned Snake” had its own language and a playful tone. It tried to communicate with the children using words and gestures. It would lift a branch over its head when it had a question. Other times, it asked the children for help. They worked together to make a film from scratch. You’d be amazed at how well the children connected with “Horned Snake.” They talked to it and sent messages, and when one of our team members wore the mask, the children quickly knew it was the character, not the person. This magical performance became our guiding light, like we had found the children’s secret language

“Horned Snake” became the most important imaginary friend in our journey. It helped us with key steps, like getting the children’s permission, showing their voices and images, and highlighting the importance of consent. We even designed an activity where it told the children that one of its snake friends felt upset because it had been filmed without permission. The snake shared its concerns about being unprepared and having its image taken without consent. The children reassured it and advised it to ask for permission next time. This memory stayed with them throughout their work, serving as a reminder. There were many enthusiastic moments when children spoke directly to the snake, and we were amazed at how this imaginary character came to our rescue. We felt relieved at some point. 


Theatre and the Magic of Performance

While “Horned Snake” was the primary imaginary character in the video project, it wasn’t the only one. As time passed, we realized that creative techniques could bridge gaps and create a shared language. Several other imaginary and cartoon characters joined our journey.  Each had a name, unique characteristics, and a story, and they helped at different times. When the children were deciding the topic of their film, three cartoon characters represented three potential themes: sleeping, playing, and studying. The children engaged with each character through performances and chose “playing” as the film’s theme, explaining their reasons. This decision was a critical moment in our journey

When planning the final public performance, theater helped the children decide their audience, refreshments, and activities. As time passed, we realized these characters held a special place in the children’s hearts. They wrote letters to them, shared their new experiences, and most of the time, missed them. 

Last but Not Least

There’s much more to our story, and as mentioned earlier, we are hopeful that these words are not read as instructions to create specific characters but are heard as a testimony of how imagination, creativity, and human connections can transform lives. When faced with differences and challenges, we discovered a shared language waiting to be uncovered. For all of us, it’s a reminder that even in tough times, we can find a way to connect, understand, and celebrate the amazing diversity of human experiences. And we hope anyone dealing with those with special needs will find their language and way.


About the author: 

Maedeh Sadighi

I am a facilitator of participatory approaches based in Iran. I am part of Ensanshahr Institute, which is focused on capacity development projects with the aim of empowering groups and individuals to become the primary agents of change. Our first PV project was led by a team of four facilitators, including Samira Hashemi, Fahime Khajouierad, Mehdi Soleymani and myself. For further information on this project and our other initiatives, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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