Once, in the not too dim and distant past, if you said you were leaving the kids to their own devices, it didn't mean they were on the couch armed with a mobile phone or tablet to Instagram friends while watching, on the big screen, YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft.

Instead, they were going outside, probably for hours, where, armed with a good measure of imagination and gumption, they would make their own fun and games.

Now here comes an answer to the "glued to their devices" issue; a way to show the young there's more to life than logging on, swiping and liking. It starts with a story to warm the heart.

Back in 1979, the International Year of the Child, the Murray River Performing Arts Group (MRPG) on the border of Albury, New South Wales and Wodonga, Victoria, joined the celebrations by starting a children's holiday circus programme. In six weeks, it worked with 80 children and set the foundations for what would become Australia's National Youth Circus.

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As it says on its website, it was never meant to last. But it did.

Some 39 years on, Flying Fruit Fly Circus has an international reputation as one of the world's leading circus schools. It's an actual school where children aged 8-18 from all over Australia board and attend classes, except, along with subjects such as maths and English, there's juggling and clowning (among the 20 hours of training pupils do each week).

It became known as the Flying Fruit Fly Circus because the Fruities' first show was about a quarantine station between twin cities Albury and Wodonga, where people had to surrender any fruit they carried to stop the spread of fruit flies. Relatable.

The beautiful thing about circus, I feel, is that it's inclusive of all sorts of kids," says artistic director Jodie Farrugia.

"It's not just the daredevils who love risk and danger, but kids who are really patient and want to concentrate on small detailed things like hand-balancing; then there are the quirky kids who want to clown or those who are perhaps more mathematically minded and want to give things like juggling a go."

Junk is a time-travelling circus journey from Australia's renowned Flying Fruit Fly circus.
Junk is a time-travelling circus journey from Australia's renowned Flying Fruit Fly circus.

The "Fruities" are the circus-in-residence at Sydney Opera House and The Cube in Wodonga. Past pupils have flown the nest to work with some of the world's high-profile circuses. The company is invited to perform all around the world; now it's coming to New Zealand — remarkably its first visit — for the Auckland Arts Festival (AAF) with a show called Junk.

The title's a nod to inventor Thomas Edison who once said: 'To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.'' That's pretty much exactly what the 17 young performers work with in a thought-provoking story about what it means to play and whether we've become too risk-averse.

A 21st century boy, encased in safety gear, prepares to ride his bike; he is suddenly sucked back in time to a junkyard inhabited by the spirits of children from the 1940s. World-class acrobatics, magical shadow puppetry and high levels of hijinks, as well as social commentary about the idea of child's play, all find a place in the story.

What's more, it was a story made through the involvement of young and old. Farrugia sent 60 youngsters to rest homes and retirement villages to talk to residents who were children in the 1940s about how they played. Eight of them, all in their 80s and 90s, inspired the characters in Junk. It debuted in 2016; an Australian Broadcasting Corporation live feed enabled those interviewed to watch from their rest homes.

Farrugia hopes the story sparks the imaginations of children everywhere. Only three of those eight seniors are still alive but she still sees them and says for all involved, it was a positive experience. That includes the children. One, 12-year-old Fruitie Ewen Schell, says the stories about how they got around and what they did for fun were pretty awesome.

Ask Erth's Scott Wright, 49, about what inspired him as a child and he'll confess watching TV might have helped to spur his creativity. Wright, the artistic director of Erth — Visual and Physical Incorporated, recalls Sesame Street piqued his interest in puppetry while David Attenborough's wildlife documentaries kicked him off the couch and gave him the impetus to explore the world.

It helped that his family was an active one, keen campers and trampers, who encouraged Wright's love of the great outdoors. Always artistic, he combined this with his love of the natural world when he started Erth, which specialises in visual effects, including giant puppetry, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments and aerial and flying creatures.

Dinosaur Zoo played in NZ two years ago; a version of it is on more or less permanent tour of the US and has been for four years. Another, The Dream of the Thylacine, brings to life lost memories of the world's last Tasmanian tiger.

Erth's illustrators, sculptors, painters, engineers, textile artists, sound designers and puppeteers don't just make shows for kids. Murder Ballads, inspired by musicians Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, explores "our culture's obsession with murder", and is described as a dark, intimate theatrical encounter.

"Now that we live in a world that is so screen-heavy, theatre has a much greater responsibility to give people very visceral and real experiences that can launch someone into a journey of discovery," says Wright. "We create the impossible."

For AAF, Erth's bringing across the Tasman the sequel, if you like, to Dinosaur Zoo. Erth's Prehistoric Aquarium immerses its audiences in a giant fishbowl under the sea and gives them a chance to meet some of the greatest marvels of prehistoric marine life face-to-face.

With puppetry and giant inflatables, it takes the audience into the world of natural history and the science of palaeontology. They get to consider questions such as: What does a plesiosaur's skin feel like? How big are a kronosaurus' teeth? Do kimberella wear shoes?

"The arts are very valuable in that they allow people to look at things from different perspectives and encourage lateral thinking," says Wright. "I like to think that the world, as we go further into a time of greater automation and artificial intelligence doing a lot of the 'work' for us, will become more appreciative of human creativity."

Top tip to get the kids into circus: Auckland's very own circus school, The Dust Palace, runs the free Top-of-the-Heap before each Flying Fruit Fly's performance. Starting 45 minutes before Junk , it's billed as a circus performance installation with giggles, contortion, adventure, tea parties and pirate battles. A Kids' Circus Skills Workshops, for 4-12-year-olds, will also be on but you'll need to book these $10 tutorials. aaf.co.nz Though it's not part of the festival, Circability, in Victoria Park, teaches circus skills in classes and workshops across Auckland for people of all ages and abilities.

Lowdown
What: Auckland Arts Festival — Junk by the Flying Fruit Fly Circus.
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna; March 9-11.
What: Auckland Arts Festival — Erth's Prehistoric Aquarium.
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre; March 16-18.