Out of the Box — the biggest children’s festival in the land — is coming back to South Bank’s Cultural Precinct these school holidays.

“It’s the sheer scale of the event that makes it so exciting,” says festival director Brendan Ross. “There are few places in the world that present an arts festival of this kind, especially for children aged from zero to eight years. Certainly, at this scale and depth, it’s very unique. It becomes a bit of a playground, really, right across the entire Cultural Precinct, from QPAC to the Gallery of Modern Art and the State Library and the Queensland Museum.

“Kids come with their imaginations, and it’s a place for them to explore, discover and run wild. It’s about creative play. It’s not just about the shows; it’s about an array of free outdoor events and programs that allow kids to bring their own ideas and imaginations to it.”

This year’s event is highlighted by appearances from popular entertainers like Justine Clarke, Sam Moran, Jay Laga’aia and Katie Noonan, but it’s a few of the shows that are flying under the radar that most excite the festival director.

Aston’s Stones is a gorgeous work,” Ross enthuses. “It’s by a Swedish theatre company, Teater Pero; it’s doing a national tour and has come straight from the Sydney Opera House to perform here. It’s quite an intimate work. We’re creating a special theatre environment for it in the Concert Hall foyer; we’re actually going to convert that foyer into a theatre.

“It’s a story about a puppy who collects stones and starts bringing them into the house, because he loves stones and he’s fascinated by all their shapes and sizes, to the point where the stones are spilling out of the windows of the house. Mum and dad embrace this and support him, but it gets to the point where it’s too much, and he has to return the stones to where they came from outside. It’s really about celebrating the way children care for and cherish things in life, and how sometimes they have to learn to let go.

“That notion of empathy is something that the arts are really good at developing. What the arts do is encourage children to extend their imaginative lives beyond themselves; to think of the world around them; to be curious about other perspectives and how other people feel. Through that process of becoming more curious, that’s how we acquire empathy! That’s how we learn to walk in other people’s shoes.”

Saltbush: Children’s Cheering Carpet, billed as an interactive journey through the culture of Aboriginal Australia, is another festival highlight. “Saltbush is where traditional indigenous Australia meets high tech,” Ross says.

“There are these indigenous artworks which are projected onto the floor and animated, and kids can interact with them. It’s all about the landscapes of Australia, and moving through them. The artists and the kids make the show together, in a sense. This work’s been touring internationally. Talk about flying under the radar – our homegrown works in early childhood are out there being seen around the world!

Still Awake Still!, a musical theatre production by Jump Leads and Jessica Wilson, is another must-see. “This is a crazy cabaret for kids, really,” Ross says.

“It’s about Miss Ivory Ticklefinger, the Queen of Sleep; her job is to try to put kids to sleep through her lullabys, but of course kids don’t want to go to sleep, so what ensues is this crazy, stream-of-consciousness production that pours out of her grand piano. Literally. There are musicians that come out of this piano, there’s a monster, there are various other things. It’s really about that space before sleep where kids’ imaginative worlds run wild.”

Out of the Box has been running for 22 years, long enough for kids who were there in the early years to now be bringing their own children to the festival. In all that time, the ethos behind the event has remained the same.

“Out of the Box really grew out of some emerging research in the early ’90s about the value of the arts in early childhood,” Ross explains. “It was quite cutting edge — academics and artists were asking, ‘how do we develop a festival that takes a sophisticated and entertaining approach to presenting early childhood arts?’ John Kotzas, our chief executive here at QPAC, was in fact the first artistic director of Out of the Box, and that approach has continued to underpin the festival right up to this day.

“This year, we’re hosting the International Teaching Artists Conference, which wraps around the festival, and that’s about staying tuned to all of the philosophy and practice surrounding early childhood and the arts… it’s absolutely vital, because we know that if children engage with the arts in the first eight years of life, then they’re far more likely to carry that through into their adult lives.”

QPAC presents Out of the Box from Wednesday 25 June to Wednesday 2 July. For the full festival program and tickets, head to outoftheboxfestival.com.au.

Check out our comprehensive guide for more things to do in Brisbane on the school holidays!