My children have been in a Montessori school since the age of three. They are now 7 and 8 and I would never put them any other place.
True, children do not consider what they do to be playing. They call it work. To them, this work is fun.
Yes, they must work with a certain material, on a mat, and may move onto a new material once they have mastered it. But they are not mastering the material, they are mastering the concept that the material is ment to teach. There are usually at least 5 different materials they can choose from to work with while they are learning a particular concept. So, there are 5 different materials for math, language, science, history, etc. That gives them a choice of at least 20 - 30 different materials they can work with on any given day.
There is extreme self esteem building because no one has to ever tell them that they did something 'wrong'. The materials are 'self correcting'. If the child uses the material incorrectly, they know it without having to be told. Then they just try again. The teacher always gives a lesson on a new material before the child can work with it.
They do work on mats. Part of this is to keep order in the classroom. Another part is that a child is allowed to leave there work out for several days until they determine that they have had enough of it. It also teaches responsibility. They get their work out, and when finished, they put it away.
Yes, children do have a hard time adjusting to a tradional classroom setting but it's usually because they are bored out of their minds and not challenged enough.
My children were able to add 4 digit numbers with carry over by the middle of first grade, and all with no stress! They absolutely adore their school, and I am so grateful to have this available for my children.
Not all Montessori schools are created equally. We have at least one "Montessori" school in our area that have no Montessori trained teachers, but have alot of Montessori equipment that never gets used.
I'm sorry if you had a bad experience, but if you can, it may be beneficial for you to observe a true Montessori classroom and speak to other parents who have had better experiences. I have also found it helpful to speek to other "non-montessori" parents to get their opinion on their current school. Most say they hate it but have no other choice. What a shame....