(I often learn what I think when answering a question :). This is an answer to a prospective parent who asked: “Why do you call it “work?” (what the children do.) Such a great question!)
While I am wide awake, I will answer about “work”: Montessori was a medical doctor, not a “teacher” and worked at first, as a doctor, with children who were not expected to learn; this was around the turn of the century and we don’t know much about what diagnoses they had, but they were lumped together as “idiot children.” She noticed that, not only could they learn, they seemed to want very much to learn. “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment. We call this process the work of the child.” She noted that concentrated “work” (purposeful activity, self-chosen) seemed to allow deep contentment. As these children had a variety of disabilities, she found (from doctors in France who were working with the deaf) and made what we call “materials” which were self teaching and sensorial in nature. Much of what is in the classroom was designed by Montessori over the years as didactic materials for children to explore (the movable alphabet, the sandpaper letters and the math materials are some of the most wonderful of these, I think).
She found, after observing children with a variety of these “materials” (many of which she would try and discard) was that they seemed willing and eager to practice many skills with a suitable materials (tracing, buttoning, counting), and, again, seemed to get great satisfaction from perfecting skills, especially when the activities were self-chosen.
It is not a free for all, though, and we limit those who are what I call “messing about” because they are obviously bored. Our goal is for the children to find something engaging.
I also often note that adults think that children are not doing “anything important”, and so tend to interrupt them. I think this is another use of the word “work”, to imply that, if a child is sitting and watching a cricket, or drawing a line, or pouring water, to watch and see if it is “work”; i.e., something deserving respect and not interruption.
Of course, “play”, as in “play an instrument, or sport” is something that takes a lot of “work”, but, in our culture, “play” with children usually connotes “not much”: “just playing”!
If the room was “quiet” which I can’t imagine, it was because, at this time of year, everyone has generally learned how to come in, find something intriguing, and get to it, at least for a little bit at a time. I do think that there is a hum, a bit like a beehive! I think you asked about ages; we started with a brand new 2 up to a brand new 5, and our goal is about 6 2s, 6 3s, and rising Kinders. The classroom is multi-aged so that there are all abilities together (everyone is good at something, and learning something) and, mostly, so that the oldest children can be mentors to the youngest children. Over the three year cycle, everyone gets to go from being mostly a learner to being often a teacher. Oh, so, yes, the point is to commit, if you can, to three years, so that each child can end up as a triumphant teacher!
Anyway, I am off to bed, and I am quite sure that this is more than you ever wanted to know about anything, ever; I do love thinking about this stuff so!