I have just started running a structured playgroup at the local neighbourhood centre (we have spare places, so if you're in Melbourne and interested in coming along, drop me an email and I can send you the details). One of the activities we did yesterday, that was a hit with most of the children, was cooking with leaves.
Autumn leaves are everywhere at the moment in this part of the world and I love to include them in play whenever I can. I really believe that play is far more beneficial and relevant to children when it brings in their everyday environment.
Here are the materials we used. I got a plastic basin and filled it with leaves. then added some tongs for the children to use to move the leaves into the yellow plastic saucepan and stew pot you can see in the picture. The tongs need a lot of muscle strength and eye hand co-ordination to manipulate, so it's a great way to build on motor skills. I also added some wooden spoons, which strengthen the muscles in the wrists when used for mixing. I got all of these materials from my kitchen and the local $2 shop (my favourite place!)
I also added a pretend wooden oven so that the children could move the leaves from the table onto the oven and talk about cooking and baking while they were doing it.
It's a really simple activity, but very effective. The children who enjoyed it played there independently for long periods of time (which is a great benefit for parents!) and the activity is really effective in building language skills, life skills and motor skills. It's also a great way for the children to act out situations they see in real life which helps them to process social rules and make sense of their world, which, of course, is of great benefit for them.