One day, Naomi Hunter of Redwood City, Calif., asked her 5-year-old son, Matthew, to help pick up the games and toys he had scattered around the living room. He surveyed the scene dejectedly and asked, "Wouldn't it be easier if we just moved?"

It's no secret that little kids can make big messes. "Often children experiment with a variety of toys before finding the perfect one for the story line or imaginary character of the moment," says Dr. Sheila Ribordy, a clinical child psychologist at DePaul University. She advises parents to let children pull out all the props, so to speak. "If you constantly pick up behind them, they won't be able to fully imagine and explore."But when your child's playtime is over (and the family-room floor is a minefield of Barbies, baubles and bears), here's how to help her straighten up:

Pitch in: "It's unrealistic to ask a child to clean up by herself," says Dr. Elizabeth Norton, a clinical child psychologist at Brigham Young University. Even though she created the mess, she may not know how to begin tidying up. Show her which toys go in which boxes, and where to place the containers when full.

Break it down: Trying to do the whole room at once will overwhelm and frustrate your child. Instead, focus on one task at a time. "Ask her to pick up the building blocks while you straighten out the book basket," says Norton. "Continue area by area until the room is tidy."

Reward small steps: Praise your child for every effort. Instead of harping on what still needs to be done, comment on the great job she did picking up all the puzzle pieces.

Make it fun: You can turn cleanup into a game by setting a timer or playing a song and seeing how much of the mess can be picked up before the buzzer goes off or the song ends. Or ask your child to put away as many toys as she can using nothing but tongs.

Dangle a carrot: Talking excitedly about the next event of the day should speed up the process, says Norton. "Say, `Let's quickly pick up this stuff so we can go outside and play.' "