One in four children in Canadian elementary and high schools have some sort of problem with their vision, according to recent studies.

However, many times, changes in vision can happen without younger children even noticing.

A child sometimes doesn’t know any different. They see what they see and expect that to be normal,” says Moe Benaim, senior category manager, optical, at Loblaw Companies Limited.

When a child doesn’t complain, it is often taken for granted that everything is normal. The reality is that every child needs to have an eye exam every year.”

A vision problem can dramatically affect a child’s success in both the classroom — experts say as much as 80 per cent of a child’s learning is based on vision — and in the gymnasium, sports field and playground — vision problems can impact a child’s hand-eye co-ordination and social development.

“A single pair of eyeglasses could mean the difference between a child thriving at school or falling behind,” says Benaim. “If they cannot see the board or focus on a picture or follow along in a book, they may struggle in school and stop short of achieving their full potential.”

The Loblaw Optical team decided this past September to expand its popular Kids See Free program.

The initiative has two main objectives.

The first is to raise awareness about the importance of regular eye examinations for children. The Ontario Association of Optometrists recommends comprehensive eye examinations for all children at age six months, before entering kindergarten and then every year while they are attending school.

But, while eye exams for children are covered by government insurance benefits in most Canadian provinces, many children are not visiting their eye doctor as regularly as they should.

The second objective of Kids See Free is to ensure kids aged four to 10 can receive a free pair of properly fitted glasses, if they require a vision correction.

What began as a back-to-school initiative to provide kids that need them with free glasses is now available all year long, Benaim says.

The Kids See Free program is available at optical departments at Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstores, Zehrs, Fortinos, Your Independent Grocers and Atlantic Superstores in Canada as well as Dominion stores in Newfoundland.

As part of the program, children aged four to 10 can receive frames, valued at up to $49, as well as single-vision corrective lenses for free.

The lenses are polycarbonate, which are lightweight, protect the eyes against the ultra-violet rays from the sun and are impact resistant with a basic scratch-resistant coating.

“On-site optical labs make it easy to fill most eyewear prescriptions while busy moms and dads finish grocery shopping,” Benaim says.

Along with the Kids See Free program, the Loblaw Optical team has also launched a new in-school vision screening program for children. So far, more than 1,000 kids have been screened.

The program originally targeted to elementary schools is now also available to high schools,” Benaim said.

Screenings are offered in Toronto and Sudbury. The Loblaw Optical team hopes to expand the program across the country, he said.

Loblaw opticians and volunteer optometrists set up in schools and provide free vision screenings. They check for things like distance and reading visual acuity, along with colour blindness, depth perception problems and strabismus.

A letter is sent home with each child to let their parents know if a visit with an optometrist is recommended.

The numbers we are seeing are quite staggering. Of the more than 1,000 kids screened to date (Grades 2-9), 30 per cent required a referral to an optometrist. We estimate that at least 50 per cent of the referrals will result in the child requiring a vision correction,” Benaim said.

The overwhelming numbers of kids with undetected vision problems provides additional motivation for us to expand this program, he said.