I’ll never forget my son’s reaction the first time he came face-to-face with a real fire truck! Head tilted back as far as it could go, he gazed upon its massiveness, its redness, its shininess. To him, it was the Freedom Tower. The Burj Khalifa. The Taj Mahal. It was his and his twin sister’s second birthday, and everything was “coming up Howlett,” as my husband likes to say.

From toddlerhood, kids are fascinated with how things work, and for my money (which in this case there’s none; it’s free), there was no better way to spend an hour or so than with a 10-minute drive up the road to a real fire station. I’ve recommended it widely and frequently to several friends for a rainy day, a birthday, or no particular reason at all.

(Read the 5280 guide to learning outside the classroom)

Here’s what you need to know before you go:

Where to go: The Boulder Fire Department has eight stations in the city, and they all give tours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week. “You can visit any station,” says fire safety coordinator Kim Scott, who has been in fire service for 20 years, “but we encourage you to visit the one closest to your home because we teach the kids that firefighters are their friends.” If you’ve already visited a regular fire station in Boulder, try the Wildland Divison location (eighth on the list). “They use different equipment and dress differently,” Scott says, adding that some kids under 3 may be more afraid than entertained.

When to schedule: While Scott says there’s “no least-busy time” to visit the fire station, to avoid disappointment (read: the firefighters are out on a call), scheduling ahead is preferable. “But even if you do call ahead, they still may be out on a call,” Scott says, so temper expectations if you can. Group and special-needs tours are also available, for which Scott recommends calling ahead.

What to expect: Climb into a fire truck’s cab, hold an ax, turn on the lights and sirens, wear the real gear, pose for photos with firemen in front of a fire truck. See where they sleep and eat. Get a badge sticker, plastic fire hat, coloring book, and temporary tattoos upon departure. Ask them anything, Scott says: Older kids are always curious about the 48-hour shifts, cats in trees, and how the stations handle more than 10,000 calls a year. (Also: Did you know fire engines carry water and fire trucks carry ladders?)

Don’t forget: Your camera and a changing pad, if your kiddo is in diapers. (Restrooms have no changing facilities.)

Upcoming appearances in Boulder:

Labor Day Weekend: Hometown Festival; Boulder Creek Corridor in downtown Boulder

Sunday, Sept. 27: Open house from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Station 1 (2441 13th St.) during Boulder Green Streets Ciclovia. Put on gear and shoot a real—but smaller—fire hose.

• October is fire-prevention month. If you have preschoolers through third graders, they may get a visit from a firefighter in their school—and a visit to the station would be a perfect follow-up!

Sat., Oct. 31, 2 to 4 p.m.: Munchkin Masquerade; Pearl Street Mall, 1942 Broadway, Boulder

(More: Find Your Perfect Boulder Park)