My lifelong Muppets obsession helped me explain the pandemic to my preschooler

Author Ali Velez Alderfer (center) shares a moment with "Sesame Street" cast members: (from left) Elmo, played by puppeteer Ryan Dillon; Sonia Manzano, who played Maria from 1971 to 2015 and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Daytime Emmy Awards in 2016; and Rosita, played by puppeteer Carmen Osbahr.

(CNN)Growing up with "Sesame Street" in the early 1980s, I found pieces of myself in Cookie Monster's sweet tooth, Big Bird's gentleness and in Grover, who was outgoing and always willing to help others, even though he made a lot of hilarious mistakes.

There was even a lady named Maria who was Puerto Rican, just like my family. Maria (played by actress Sonia Manzano) looked and sounded like one of my aunts. I wanted to be a flower girl when she married Luis on "Sesame Street."
And then along came the movies, which sealed my lifelong obsession with Jim Henson's Muppets.
Seeing "The Muppets Take Manhattan" when I was 7 changed my life. Just like the characters, I studied theater in college, moved to the Big Apple to make my dreams come true and even started doing stand-up comedy, just like my hero, Fozzie Bear.
    Friendship. Perseverance. Hope. The Muppets helped me get through the lean times and sang along with me when I celebrated any small victories. I didn't know that these amazing characters would prepare me to raise my own child during the rough times we'd face over the past few months.

    A deep dive into the Muppets

    In my 30s, I took my love of all things Muppet-related to academia. In graduate school, I studied the informal learning that happens for young children when exposed to Muppet movies and other media created strictly for entertainment.
    I found that kids as young as 3 years old were able to recognize and categorize positive and negative characters, behaviors and situations.
    Young kids also learned language while being entertained by these movies and television programs, especially when watching with a parent or other close adult. The children immediately picked up new words, when placed in context, and learned more complicated words and ideas by asking the adult watching along, "What does that mean?"
    There is much more beneath the surface of "Sesame Street"'s curriculum-based programming, too. My friends on "the street" taught me my ABCs and 123s, of course. But I also learned about helping others, community and what to do with all of the big feelings that took over my little body. These lessons carried with me throughout my life and shaped my relationships with others.
    I was 18 years old when my grandmother, who was the heart of my family, died. I remember my younger cousin, who was about 7 years old, struggling to understand and cope with her passing. The well-meaning adults, lost in their own grief, used flowery language — "she's resting in peace," "she's passed on," "she's gone."
    As tears streamed down his face, my cousin called out for her and wanted to see her again. I tried to help him understand the permanence of the situation. It didn't even occur to me at the time that I was using the same language the grown-ups on "Sesame Street" had used to help Big Bird and 6-year-old me understand Mr. Hooper's death.

    Helping me parent in a pandemic

    I had no idea how valuable these lessons of kindness, honesty and emotional intelligence would become once I became a parent.
    The author, shown here when her son was 17 months old, took lessons imparted by "Sesame Street" with her into adulthood.
    Back in March, a week after my son's third birthday party, I picked him up from preschool. We stopped at the local grocery store — where everyone knows him by name — and went home.
    We didn't realize that would be the last time my kiddo saw anybody beside his parents for six months — and counting. Like so many American families, when we first began our stay-at-home safety measures, we really thought it was only going to be for a couple of weeks. A month, tops.