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Bins, and plenty of them! Rubbermaid tubs, or colorful bins from IKEA.
Also, if the kids like to play with Lego or other small things, you can put a sheet down on the floor and when it's time to gather bits to put away, it's pretty easy.
For small things, it can help to clean with a dustpan - scoop little toys or parts into a rubber tub (dishwashing tubs work well for this) for when you have a moment to sit down and sort. I even clean like this to some extent - sweep everything into a pile and sort it sitting on a stepstool rather than wandering around the room picking up.
One thing I've found in my home is that while it looks bad after a couple days, its not hugely worse after a week - so for me its an energy saver to spend a larger chunk of time once a week rather than little bits of time every day.
Something else that helps me is to keep my things organized but not try to impose my ideas of organization on others in the family. My way doesn't necessarily work for them! Mo, in particular, likes to spread out her tools (toys, legos, pens, crayons) and hunt through for what she wants rather than having things organized into bins or whatever. I still sometimes organize the legos for the fun of it (if I'm feeling a need to take over the world I can sort legos... its soothing). But I've also learned that I do it for me.
The post-Katrina comment made me laugh. Clutter and disorganization really stress me out, and while it doesn't seem to bother anyone else per se, they do all like it better when the house is in order. Not to say everything is neat and put away all the time (we're unschoolers, we live here, we're home a lot too!), but I do pick up every day. It helps me to do a little bit at different times during the day rather than try to do it all at night when I'm tired.
If the boys (I have three - 6, 4 and 1) are playing w/ legos and then move on and are done w/ legos, and the legos are in a common area, I'll clean them up. If someone was wearing a costume and it got discarded somewhere, i'll put it back in the costume closet. Everything has a home, and while things aren't always in their homes, it helps to know where they belong. I've gotten to a point where I'm much more comfortable with a messy home -- if someone shows up unannounced, I no longer feel the need to apologize for things that are out. I think that's a good thing, for many reasons!
Sometimes the mess feels overwhelming (especially if I don't have the time to pick up throughout the day), but mostly when I look around now, I see the ideas and games behind the mess and I see happy kids. Changing my view of it has made a big difference for me.
I like your attitude, Alice. We still don't always manage to pick up with any sort of regularity but...
I made that Katrina comment because we were living on our sailboat near New Orleans when Katrina hit. We tied up the boat and evacuated to Houston, and when we returned to our boat the interior looked like a giant had picked it up and shaken it til his arms got tired. Our house is never quite that messy but it's an image that stays with you and it's a standard by which we judge all other messes.
Thank you all for your ideas and thoughts. I never even thought that they may prefer the house this way. I just look around and feel the anxiousness of a messy house. But, that's how I feel.
Also, I am a cleaner everyday I have a 'chore'. But, doing it all at once once a week, is a great thought as well. :)
*** they may prefer the house this way ***
"This way" may not be messy. "This way" may mean feeling like the house is their creative space waiting to be used.
Messes can get in the way of that. They may want clear space to fill with new creations but at their ages, the "cost" (mental energy and time) is greater than the benefit because it just doesn't come easy to them yet.
Dawn expressed cleaning up this way once:
We don't clean up messes to have a clean house. We clean up messes so there is room for more mess!
Now I think of cleaning up after my kids as replacing a canvas. I do it with the thought that by giving them room again and a bare floor and organized toys to pick from I'm handing them the tools to write another mess onto our house. It's meant that at the end of a day, or sometimes a few days in a row, I just let the mess stay, because really, it's a work of art or a story. Maybe it isn't finished. Maybe it's too interesting to be gotten rid of so soon. It also clears up my feelings of resentment about doing the bulk of it. I like being the one to reset the house so that we all can live another, different mess the next day.
Though Sandra calls her page Chores, with links to lots more about them, there are also approaches to cleaning up and tips on the pages that might be helpful.