Happy birthday to your BIG three year old! It's well and truly party animal time, so don't be surprised if the elaborate birthday cake requests, party food and dress-up themes are a hot topic as the big day draws near.

By now, your toddler will more socially savvy, be able to play cooperatively and have a 'social network' via preschool or playgroup, but it's still probably a bit early to be inviting the whole class.

No matter how socially confidant, pre-schoolers tend to cope better in small groups, particularly in the overstimulating environment of a birthday party. And don't be surprised if you get some overwhelmed tears or obnoxious behaviour during the party.

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Top party tips? Put aside your fear of exclusion and limit the guest list, keep the party to two hours, organise simple games and keep them rolling – give everyone an idea of the activities you have planned (ie. what you've got planned between now and cake time). Finally, don't invite too many adult friends/family, other than guest-kids' parents, otherwise you'll be playing host to them rather than focusing on the little ones.

Great pressie options for this age are toys and games that will meet their desire for creative, messy, dramatic, physical play, so see our suggestions, from budget to bigger-ticket items here.

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In the coming year, you should see some pleasing advances in the basics of independent care – dressing (buttons and zips still present a challenge), self-feeding, hand washing and using the bathroom, although wiping is still a bit hit and miss!

Gender identity starts to form between three and four years old, so while your three year old may know they are a boy or a girl, they may not necessarily realise this will be the same when they grow up! Many won't have cared if they are playing with a 'boy' or 'girl' toy until now.

As for the developmental differences between boys and girls, at this age girls tend to have better fine motor skills and more advanced social skills. For both, though, the concept of love and trust is developing and you may find your little tyke is often busy giving friends and family spontaneous hugs.